Vickroy: Storm rescue like ‘being touched by an angel’
BY DONNA VICKROY email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy February 17, 2014 8:00PM
The Strilko family of New Lenox: Jacob (front), Ryan (back from left), Tyler, Tina, Jeff and Kristen. | Supplied photo
Updated: March 19, 2014 6:20AM
This winter’s freeze-snow cycle has left many of us with lasting memories of shoveling out, hunkering down and wondering if it all will ever go away.
But for the Strilko family, of New Lenox, the Midwest’s first round with the polar vortex left them with the adventure of a lifetime and a renewed sense of faith in humanity’s goodness, not to mention some lifelong friends in a small town in Indiana.
Jeff and Tina Strilko and their four kids spent the Christmas and New Year’s holidays at Tina’s sister’s home in West Palm Beach, Fla.
The weekend after New Year’s, the family headed back north in their Chrysler Town & Country minivan.
“We knew a snowstorm was coming,” said Tina, who works for a sound-system consultancy in Romeoville. “We figured we’d just take our time driving.”
They spent the night of Jan. 4 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The next day, with more than half of the journey behind them, they figured they were making good time. But they were also watching weather reports.
“The storm was so big we realized there was no way around it,” she said.
The reports out of Indianapolis were so bad that they decided to divert course and head west around Louisville.
In Indiana, they filled up in Terre Haute and continued north on U.S. 41. When they reached U.S. 36, they made the fateful decision to turn west and head toward Illinois.
“We were hoping to catch I-57,” Tina said. “All of us were on our cellphones, mapping the storm and watching GPS. All the information we had said that Indiana was worse than Illinois.”
But by the time they reached the town of Dana, Ind., they were moving at a snail’s pace through blizzard conditions.
“It was dark, we couldn’t see the road, the guard rails; we had no idea if we were on a bridge or flat land,” Tina said.
Jeff, a carpenter, slowed down even more.
“That’s when we got stuck,” she said. With temperatures plummeting to near zero, they had little choice but to call 911.
Their kids, Ryan, Kristen, Tyler and Jacob, were texting and tweeting their friends to “pray for us,” Tina said.
The youngest, Jacob, told his mom he was scared.
“He said, ‘I’m going to go to sleep, wake me up when this is over,’ ” Tina said.
None of the Strilkos had a winter coat with them. Their vehicle was loaded with luggage full of hot-weather clothing.
“As a mother, I was so mad at myself for getting the kids into this predicament,” Tina said.
Then through the darkness, they spied lights. When John Benton arrived, 11-year-old Jacob awoke and asked, “Is that God?”
Maybe not God, Tina said, but surely someone sent on his behalf.
Benton, a reserve deputy sheriff with the Vermillion County Sheriff’s Department, also is a member of the emergency response team for the Dana Fire Department.
It was not his first rescue of the day, nor would it be his last.
Benton was at home, about a quarter mile off U.S. 36, when the winds started picking up. He remembered back to a winter in 1978, when he spent the better part of a day hauling people out of snowbanks.
“The snow drifts really high across the highway,” he said.
Around 10 o’clock that night, he heard a call come in to dispatch. A family was stranded about two miles away. The motorists weren’t sure if they were in Indiana or Illinois.
Benton said he knew the other deputy was a good seven miles away at the jail, so he volunteered to pick up the travelers and meet the deputy at a nearby rest park. From there, the deputy could take them to the county jail, where they could wait out the storm.
When Benton told the Strilkos the plan, 16-year-old Ryan immediately joked, “I want a T-shirt.”
But as they were heading toward the jail, another call came over the radio. The deputy was now stuck in a drift.
So Benton stopped at his home, told the crew to sit tight and ran inside.
“I asked my wife, ‘Honey, do you mind if this family comes in and sits for a while? I need to go dig the deputy out,’ ” he said.
The Bentons recently had moved into the farmhouse from across town. Becky Benton said, “There were boxes everywhere. But I said, ‘Well, I don’t have a whole lot but I do have heat and food. They’re welcome to stay as long as they need.’ ”
For two days and two nights, the Strilkos enjoyed the Bentons’ hospitality. Jeff and Tina had a room to themselves, while the kids slept in the living room.
Becky cooked meals and baked brownies for them and all sat around the table playing board games and watching TV.
“They were so good to us,” Tina said. “It was amazing.”
The Bentons felt the same about their guests.
“They are a fantastic family,” Becky said. “I know it was scary for them to come into a home where they didn’t know anybody, but they were wonderful. So polite, so pleasant. I hope we remain friends for a long time.”
Tina said until she got to know the Bentons, she was a bit wary.
“I texted my mom the name and address of where we were staying,” she said. “It felt kind of weird at first. But they were so kind to us, so nice. It was a real eyeopener that there are people who will take in complete strangers.”
When the family realized they’d left Jacob’s allergy medication behind in the stranded van, John Benton went back and retrieved it.
Tina said that first night and all the next day, John Benton kept getting calls about other motorists who needed help. At one point, his truck started getting stuck in the snow, so he switched to his tractor. When that got stuck, he brought out the snowmobile.
Becky said he snowmobiled a few people to the firehouse and the jail during the storm.
He lost track but, John Benton said, he figures he rescued some 15 people over those two days. Some were long-distance travelers, some got stuck on their way to work.
After two days, the roads reopened and the Strilkos were back on their way.
“Driving was still treacherous but it was doable,” Tina said.
When it was all over, John Benton got a call from the sheriff asking him to come to the station. When he got there, a local TV crew was waiting to film John and a few others from Dana while they received meritorious certificates of service.
John Benton insists he is not a hero.
“I just did what I was supposed to do,” he said. “There needs to be more people who don’t mind helping others out.”
Days later, the Bentons, who have two sons, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, received a package from the Strilkos. Included were some new tennis balls for the Bentons’ black lab, Annie.
“It turned out to be great,” John Benton said. “My wife had a great time. Our dog had a great time. Everybody was happy.”
Tina Strilko said, “It felt like somebody was watching over us that night. So many bad things could have happened. Instead, we got to spend two more days together, playing games with our very gracious hosts.”
She likened it to an episode of the TV show “Touched by an Angel.”
“It’s all very heartwarming,” she said.