FOR 50 harrowing kilometres, Ballarat woman Melanie Whelan was stuck on a mechanically unsound tourist bus, not knowing whether she would reach safety before Hurricane Sandy hit New York on Tuesday.
A reporter with The Courier, Ms Whelan was travelling from Washington to New York as part of a month-long tour of the US when Hurricane Sandy hit.
Turned away by authorities who were only allowing cars through, Ms Whelan’s tourist bus driver was forced to sneak around barricades and travel along back streets before finding a secondary bridge to cross to get his 54 passengers to safety before the superstorm hit.
The bus, with 54 passengers from Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, England and the US, made it into the New York suburb of Brooklyn less than two hours before the devastating storm.
“When we left Washington, we were literally running ahead of the storm. We were trying to get to New York before the storm hit,” Ms Whelan said.
The tourist bus was battered by strong winds and heavy rains during the trip from Washington, but 16 kilometres from Ms Whelan’s Brooklyn hotel, their bus was turned away.
“(Authorities) were only letting cars through. Vehicles over a certain height, like our bus, were not allowed to enter New York due to the winds. They were literally closing bridges. We tried about two or three major bridges before we found a secondary one to sneak across. We tried any way to get into the city, taking it one bridge at a time. To add to this, there was something wrong with the bus and it kept breaking down.”
Ms Whelan, who was sitting at the front of the bus, was comforted during the ordeal by listening to regular radio contact between the driver and the bus company.
“There was a lot of frustration and stress (among the passengers) ... there was a very flat feeling, because the passengers were worried. I felt a little more at ease, because I was sitting at the front and could see exactly what was going on and what (the driver) was trying to do. Our route into the city was constantly being mapped out to get us into the city somehow.”
Ms Whelan, who was on her first trip to New York, eventually made it to her Brooklyn hotel about two hours before the storm hit.
“I was fortunate enough to catch a lift with the (hotel’s) maintenance guy, who took us to the roof of the building. We stood out there for about 20 seconds ... it was incredible to look down at Brooklyn and see no one bustling around.
“It was the weirdest thing coming into New York, travelling along deserted main roads which were normally packed. For me, I felt like I was on the set of one of those end-of-days movies. I was waiting for Bruce Willis or Will Smith to come and save us.”
The day after the superstorm, Ms Whelan managed to explore the neighbouring streets to inspect the damage, which she said included a lot of fallen signs, awnings and trees.
Ms Whelan said she was disappointed at not seeing some major New York landmarks, like Ground Zero, which was flooded and the Statue of Liberty, but the storm had not deterred her from returning.