Travel nightmare ‘was one of those instances in your life where people help each other’

Patrice Parker, far right, and four new friends she made during a Feb. 3 trip to Bellingham ride the light rail in Seattle on their way to pick up a bus to Bellingham.
Patrice Parker, far right, and four new friends she made during a Feb. 3 trip to Bellingham ride the light rail in Seattle on their way to pick up a bus to Bellingham. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Those of you who don’t ski or didn’t have the luxury of holing up for a few days this week in the comfort of your sweatpants and fuzzy slippers binge watching the latest Netflix series probably have come to the conclusion that snow stinks. S-T-I-N-K-S.

Sure, it’s beautiful when it’s coming down and we need it in the mountains, but if you’ve got to go out and shovel it or white knuckle a car to the office in it three or four days in a row, it’s a cold, frustrating, slippery kind of misery that nobody should have to endure. The nightmare is even worse if you actually have to leave the county to travel elsewhere.

But those struggles turned into something much more rewarding for a group of five strangers aboard a canceled flight from Seattle to Bellingham International Airport. Little did the Alaska Airlines Flight 425 Five, as we’ll call them, know they would end up bonding over their own epic travel version of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” and become fast friends on a wayward voyage to Whatcom County.

Remember the first round of snow and bone-chilling winds the whipped in from the Fraser Valley way back on Super Bowl Sunday — it was only about a foot or so of snow ago?

That was the night that Patrice Parker, a cooking blogger and Bellingham resident of nearly two years, had the misfortune of picking to travel home following more than two weeks in the much warmer climates of Southern California and Hawaii. Her original Feb. 3 itinerary had her scheduled to fly from Orange County, change planes in Seattle and arrive in Bellingham at the reasonable hour of 10:30 p.m., she said.

“I could tell the weather when we got to Seattle wasn’t good, but I was happy,” Parker told The Bellingham Herald last week. “I had enough time in between flights where I wasn’t rushed. I even had time to stop and get some of that fabulous macaroni and cheese they have there. ... So I got to my gate, and I’m watching, and I’m watching and I’m watching, and flights are canceling, canceling, canceling. So I asked about my flight, and they were like, ‘No, yours is going to be fine.’”

But, as you might expect, it wasn’t.

Circling Bellingham

Plane tracker.JPG
A screen capture of a flight tracker app show the path Alaska Airlines flight 425 took Feb. 3 over Bellingham International Airport. Windy winter weather forced the flight to return to Seattle. Patrice Parker Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Parker said she learned at approximately 11:30 p.m. that her flight was was canceled and combined with another later flight to Bellingham, and passengers of both flights were told to hustle to a larger plane located on the N concourse. Once everybody’s ticket was changed, they boarded and were on their way for what they figured would be a short flight north. And the S.S. Minnow was just taking “a three-hour tour.”

“That flight was not fun,” Parker said. “I’ve done it a number of times now, so I know it really well. We’re coming into Bellingham, and we’re descending, descending, descending, and then the pilot all of a sudden throws on the power and takes off again. That startles you a bit, but I was like, ‘Well, OK, I’ve been through this before.’”

Parker said the pilot informed passengers that he had aborted the landing attempt because the runway lights at Bellingham International were not coming on, and the flight crew was going to see if they could get somebody to flip them on.

“So we circled and circled and circled,” said Parker, who has a screenshot from a flight tracker app that shows a wild, squiggly tangle of overlapping circles over western Whatcom County and southern British Columbia. “At one point we got caught in a crosswind and it was like a roller coaster ride — we went down and off to the side, and there was a lot of noise in the cabin. It was scary.”

Finally, Parker said, the pilot told them they were going to have to return to Seattle because the crosswinds had exceeded what was considered safe, and around 2:30 or 3 a.m., they touched down back at Sea-Tac.

“I was one of the last ones off, and the pilot apologized for such an awful flight and not getting us there,” Parker said. “I told him, ‘You did great just getting us safely down.’”

Sleepless in Seattle

Back in the terminal they had just left, Parker said passengers traipsed over to the customer service desk to see what the airline could do to help them get to Bellingham, and were told their only options were refunds or waiting for an 11:40 a.m. flight.

“So at that point, there were like five of us, and we were all kind of stuck, so we kind of banded together and tried to figure out a way to get home,” Parker told The Herald, adding that they actually were a group of six if you included a seven-month-old baby a young mother in the group was traveling with.

Brought together because there was no one else, they quickly started making plans together, looking into renting a bus or even a car or van before someone suggested taking the BoltBus to Bellingham.

“One person was on their phone checking into the BoltBus, and another was checking out the light rail, and someone else went to get coffee,” Parker said. “We just started working like a team.

“Then when we had a plan, we found a quiet place and we started sharing texts and things we found and exchanging numbers and telling stories and jokes. We had fun, but we also worked well together.”

Their work uncovered a 6:30 a.m. bus to Bellingham with available seats, but they had to take the light rail to the International Boulevard/Chinatown Station and walk a few blocks to pick it up.

Only problem was it already had been snowing in Seattle for a while by the time they left the airport at 5 a.m., and Parker said, “none of us dressed for the weather.”

But out into the elements they trudged — navigating the snowy sidewalks as best they could, even following the thin path one shop owner made as he shoveled part of the way.

“We tried to share the load,” Parker said. “I had two massive suitcases, and the mother had the baby, so we all pitched in and helped each other out, and we’d make sure we weren’t leaving anybody behind. It was kind of safety in numbers thing.”

And unfortunately they would need that safety just a little while longer, as the bus was about an hour late, and though the waiting area was covered from the snow, there was no shelter from the bitter cold and wind.

“When we finally got on that bus, oh it was so warm,” Parker said. “And they had a place to charge your phone, and I was down to like six percent. And I was so glad we didn’t rent a car, because the roads were terrible. They were counting the number of cars in the ditch on the way up.”

‘It warmed my heart’

Parker’s son picked her up at the Cordata bus station, and after dropping off two of her new-found friends at Bellingham International, she finally made it home at 12:30 p.m. — 21 hours after the flight left Orange County.

“When you look back on it, obviously, it was tiring,” Parker told The Herald. “But what could have been a really difficult, scary experience, we ended up building camaraderie. We watched out for each other, and it ended up being fun.”

Parker said she also learned the trick to getting home if she ever found herself stranded in an airport after a flight canceled by inclement weather.

And as luck would have it, she didn’t have to wait long to put that knowledge to use, as a day later her husband was scheduled to make a similar trip from Orange County and found himself stranded in Portland after his flight to Bellingham was canceled.

“I jumped right on the computer and found the BoltBus came up from Portland, so I immediately started looking how to get him to that stop,” Parker said.

No light rail this time, she scheduled him a taxi, and he made it safely home, where he, too, was treated to stories of his wife’s travel buddies.

“It was one of those instances in your life where people help each other,” Parker said. “We all got home safe, and we’re all chuckling about our experience now. We’re even talking about having a reunion.

“When I got home, I started thinking how grateful I was. These young people — they were all in their 20s or 30s, and I was the oldest — I just met them and they cared about each other and they cared about me. It was great to see. It warmed my heart.”

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.