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The Eric Factor: Man shares his chilling story of survival during extreme cold

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On Friday, I took a phone call in the Weather Center by a man who asked if I wanted to hear a story about his first-hand experience of almost dying in the cold. We chatted on the phone for twenty minutes or more. Here is Chuck Ford’s story.

“This all happened one night back in 1978. It was January or February.” Chuck recalls going out bar-hopping in Mercer County, Illinois with two friends. Nothing too out of the ordinary for the young guys. New Boston, Aledo, and Joy were stops on their ‘small-town tour.’ But while the guys were inside, the weather was changing outside…and very quickly! “Snow started coming down but we didn’t think anything of it.” As the winds whipped up, the three guys plowed through the snow drifts in an Oldsmobile. Chuck recalls feeling invincible. But it all changed in an instant. “This one snow drift caused the tires to come up from the pavement and we were immediately stuck. There wasn’t any way we were going to get going again.” Conditions deteriorated rapidly. “It was getting so bad, snow was coming through the little crack between the top of the window and the metal strip. You couldn’t see anything outside.”

But it’s 1978. These were the days before cell phones. When you were stuck, you were stuck…alone. And one of the three guys in Chuck’s car only had moccasins on! “It was 50 degrees when we started the evening! We couldn’t fathom what was about to happen.”

“Most people think frostbite is what will kill you in weather like this. But they’re wrong. The cold shuts your brain off.” Chuck and Brian decided they needed to go get help. They left their friend Jerry and set out to find anyone who could help them out. Staying in the car wasn’t an option for them, Chuck saying they thought they would die there in the car. So they bundled up as best they could and walked down the road. “Thankfully there were two of us. After a while, your body just gets so cold, you just want to go to sleep. I think that’s what kills most of these people. They think they can make it, but the cold temperature just makes you want to take a break and lay down.”

I asked him how did they keep going.

“We walked hand-in-hand. And damn near expired.”

Winter travel becomes more dangerous outside of cities and towns.

Winter travel becomes more dangerous outside of cities and towns.

They found a farm house but as luck would have it, no one was home. “I knew we had to get inside so I used every bit of my energy and knocked the door in.” Once inside, they stripped down. “My skin was literally hard. I remember rubbing my skin with my hands and having frost come off.” He recalls looking at Brian once they got undressed. “The right side of his face was all swelled up. He looked disfigured.” They called Paramedics who told them to warm up slowly and they did that by sitting in front of an open oven.

Sheriff’s Police dispatched snowmobiles to the road where they left their buddy Jerry in the Oldsmobile. The car was almost buried by the time they arrived. Thankfully, he was okay.

I asked Chuck how long it took to get back to normal. He joked that his buddies toasted with a couple of beers the next day. “I got big blisters on my legs…about the size of half dollars. Eventually, they went away.”

A crazy story about survival on a country road in Western Illinois. But when I pressed him on why he was sharing it with me, he said “to let others know to be careful.”

Nowadays, he carries winter equipment in his truck. “People don’t realize how dangerous this can be. We almost didn’t make it. Now we all have cell phones, but still. If you go out in bad weather, you’re really taking a chance.”

Definitely something to think about! With Wind Chills dipping below -35 like on Sunday night, skin could freeze in as little as ten minutes.

-Meteorologist Eric Sorensen

Potential wind chills early Sunday morning. Frostbite is likely in 10 minutes.

Potential wind chills early Sunday morning. Frostbite is likely in 10 minutes.