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Mother, son spend 16 hours trapped in car that was in ditch during blizzard

John Stennes / Forum News Service Latesa Adamsen and her 6-year-old son Dylan Ryba survived 16 hours in their car during last Friday's blizzard after they drove into a ditch on County Road 9 west of Larimore, N.D.1 / 2
Storm graphic by Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

GRAND FORKS — The pepperonis weren’t much, but they were all Latesa Adamsen and her 6-year-old son, Dylan Ryba, had to eat.

The small pieces of meat had been pried off a few frozen pizzas after being warmed by a car’s heat vent.

“(Dylan) said, ‘Why don’t we stick matches in the pizza and heat it that way?’ “ Adamsen said Tuesday. She can laugh about it now, but last Friday’s events didn’t seem so funny at the time.

The meager dinner was all the mother and son had for food while trapped for 16 hours in a car while a blizzard raged around them. Their Volkswagen Jetta was trapped in a ditch on Grand Forks County Road 9 west of Larimore and south of Niagara.

The pair survived with only minor frostbite from a short-lived trip outside the car and a lesson to pass on to others: Be prepared.

‘Staying overnight’

As she was leaving her job at Good Samaritan Society home care, Adamsen said she had no idea a winter storm was headed her way.

“We don’t get to see much of the news at work,” she said. “I just heard the roads were icy.”

She picked up Dylan and they started the drive to their rural home about 12 miles out of Larimore.

Blowing snow cut visibility to nearly zero, but, for a few miles, Adamsen was able to follow another car. Once she turned onto County Road 9, she said she couldn’t see a thing.

The conditions caused her to lose sight of the road and — at less than 10 mph — Adamsen drove into the ditch.

A broken phone that wouldn’t hold a charge kept her from calling for help. Her GPS would later reveal she was only about 2 1/2 miles from home.

Adamsen’s attempts to dig out the car were thwarted by winds reaching more than 35 mph — creating deadly wind chills during the storm.

When she checked the time, it was 7 p.m.

“I just knew we would be staying overnight,” she said.

The car’s position in the ditch allowed the tailpipe to remain exposed, making it possible for Adamsen to keep the vehicle running.

Even with that bit of heat, she said she tore apart her 4-year-old daughter Caitlyn Ryba’s car seat and used the padding to cover her son.

Surviving the night

After a few hours in the car, Dylan became excited at the prospect of being in a situation similar to hosts on his favorite show about using skills to survive extreme environments, “Dual Survival.”

He eagerly helped his mom disassemble a camping chair. She used the chair’s metal rods to chip away at snow around the car.

“You think we would have been more prepared,” Adamsen said Tuesday as she recalled the lack of blankets or a survival kit in the car.

As conditions cleared, Adamsen and Dylan noticed a farm in the distance.

“It was far enough away but close enough to think about it,” Adamsen said of walking to it.

A native of Sacramento, Calif., she hadn’t been brought up with the constant warning for stranded motorists to stay with their vehicles.

Mother and son decided that in the morning, if the wind died down, they would try for the farm.

Morning came and, after fashioning a scarf and facemask from hand towels and an old bra for Dylan, they stepped out of the car.

They made it about 50 feet from the car when Adamsen saw Dylan become upset. She scooped him up and the fled back to the car.

“Dylan said, ‘We’re never doing that ever again,’” Adamsen said.

Though short, the excursion resulted in minor frostbite on Dylan’s earlobe and Adamsen’s back and two fingers.

Perfect timing

As the hours ticked by, the needle on the idling car’s gas gauge slid closer to empty.

Adamsen and Dylan cuddled in the backseat in preparation for the car’s eventual shutdown.

Holding her son, Adamsen said, “Why don’t we pray to God and see if he can help us?”

A moment later, just before 11 a.m., their prayer seemed to be answered.

A man in a snowplow came upon the car and pulled it from the ditch. Adamsen said the Jetta ran out of gas as soon as it was on the road.

In what seemed like another case of perfect timing, a van driven by Adamsen’s fiancé, Ryan Ryba, accompanied by daughter Caitlyn, pulled up to the scene. That van had refused to start just two days earlier.

In the time since her rescue, Adamsen said she has received many lectures about winter survival from friends and family.

She urges anyone traveling in the winter to be sure they have a plan and a survival kit in their car.

“People always think it won’t happen to them,” Adamsen said. She added that she’s very excited to get an SUV next month.