Strangers Stranded At DIA Team Up To Get Home

Caught up with thousands of other travelers stranded at Denver International Airport by mass airline cancellations, a Utah couple made new friends and a harrowing 13.5-hour winter drive through the Rockies for their holiday homecoming.

Renée Jean

January 02, 20237 min read

Stranded 12 29 22
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter

Not everyone’s Southwest Airlines story of being stranded by canceled flights last week was a nightmare.

Spencer Horn was among the thousands of travelers caught up in the terrible traffic snarl at Denver International Airport when Southwest and other airlines canceled thousands of flights, stranding travelers just before Christmas.

But thanks to what he calls a Christmas miracle, Horn and his wife were able to find their way home, just in time for their family’s annual tradition – strolling the beautiful Christmas Luminaria in Lehi, Utah, just south of Salt Lake City.

Smacked By Storm Elliott

Horn and his wife Jana had been visiting family in Des Moines, Iowa, but had booked their flight to return home in what they thought would be plenty of time for their family’s Christmas celebrations.

First, their flight out of Des Moines was delayed two hours for de-icing, which started a chain reaction that landed the couple smack in the middle of winter storm Elliott.

Their flight from Des Moines was an hour late to make their Denver connection. When the couple tried to rebook, the airline placed them on different flights. 

“They rebooked me for the following morning, and my wife for that night at 11 o’clock,” Horn told Cowboy State Daily. 

Horn asked to be placed on standby for the evening flight with his wife and booked a hotel, just in case.

As the couple went back through airport security, they discovered the flight they’d been scheduled to leave on actually hadn’t even left the airport. It had been rescheduled for departure at 9:30 p.m.

They had just been automatically bumped because their flight out of Des Moines was late. 

A long line of trucks and cars waiting for accidents to be cleared on Interstate 70 between Denver and Salt Lake City. (Courtesy Photo)

Settling In To Wait

At that point, nothing could be done. So, Horn and his wife read books to pass the time and relax while waiting for the 11 p.m. flight. 

“We didn’t really notice all the cancellations that were happening,” Horn said.

When their flight was delayed until 2 a.m., they just continued reading.

Gradually, though, he and his wife became aware of people around them talking about flight cancellations.

Then came the announcement over the intercom.

And the mayhem began.

“Everybody jumped up and got in line,” Horn said. “There were 150 to 250 people at every gate that had a customer service representative.”

No Cars To Rent

Horn, who is an experienced traveler, realized the only likely way he and his wife would get out of Denver in time for their family Christmas tradition was to forget flying and just rent a car. 

Rather than get in line, he immediately started looking for car rentals. But he was one of thousands, all trying to rent vehicles out of the Denver airport at the same time. He tried several times, but just couldn’t get one. 

Reluctantly, he and his wife joined a line – a line that wasn’t moving. At all. 

Horn said he had a sinking feeling that they were stuck in Denver. Their chances of making it back in time were probably about the same as the temperature outside. Negative.

An Angel In Disguise

Just as he was losing hope, a lady who’d been on the same flight with them out of Des Moines spotted Horn and wandered over.

Horn asked what she was planning to do, and she told him she’d used her AARP membership to somehow find a rental online. She was thinking about whether to take it, but wasn’t sure she felt comfortable doing all the driving, given the weather. 

She was a matron of the Temple Square Mission with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and had 65 out-of-town visitors she was supposed to meeting with in Salt Lake City. That made it imperative that she get home in time.

Their Best Chance

Horn knew this was their best chance of getting everyone out of the Denver airport in time for their various commitments, Christmas included, and he was comfortable and experienced driving in snow.

“We said, ‘Absolutely, we’re in!’” Horn said. “And so that’s how it all happened.”

While the three awaited their shared rental car, another couple joined them. As they were talking, Horn learned that couple’s rental was going to cost them $700 to get to Vernal, Utah, which was on their way.

When the rental arrived and turned out to be pretty large, Horn and the other woman all agreed they should invite the couple to join them.

Stormy Drive

The road trip itself was an adventure, Horn admitted. 

“There were times when we couldn’t even see, because the wind would whip up the snow, and if you were behind a truck or a car, it was almost impossible, I mean, whiteout conditions,” Horn said. “We had to almost stop a couple of times because we were going right off into the shoulder.”

Horn had initially wanted to drive up through Laramie, but Interstate 80 was closed because of the poor conditions. That sent them through the mountain pass on I-70 instead. 

It’s normally an eight-hour drive from Denver to Salt Lake City in good driving conditions.

“We didn’t have snow tires,” Horn said. “It was 3 a.m. in the morning. By the time we were really going, we went to a truck stop, but they didn’t have any size chains.”

Once they got to the Eisenhower Tunnel, Horn saw lots of trucks and vehicles off the road in ditches. 

“We sat for 90 minutes outside of the Eisenhower Tunnel while they were clearing wrecks that had happened,” Horn said. “We just kept going, sometimes very slowly. When it was a good patch, we would speed up.”

It still took them 13.5 hours to make it home.

Restored Faith

Horn said after reading so many other tales of frustrated travelers caught in the Southwest Airlines traffic snarl, he felt grateful and wanted to share his story, as a kind of Christmas miracle.

“The fact that we were able to make the logistics work out and find people who would travel with us was — and then driving safely through the storm and weather — I just felt like there were, you know, some angels watching over us, because we didn’t slide off the road,” Horn said.

“I mean, it was like an ‘Ice (Road) Truckers’ episode almost the entire way, until we got to Vernal, Utah,’” he added.

New Friends

Horn also is happy to have made new friends out of the ordeal.

“There’s so much negativity,” he said. “You see so much in the news of terrible things that are happening.”

Other parts of the world are in chaos, Horn said. Missiles and drones are crashing in Ukraine, while people in Iran and Afghanistan – particularly women – are being repressed. 

“You see all this and you see all the political garbage that has gone on in this country and then you meet strangers who are just wonderful and delightful and kind,” he said. 

It’s easy to forget, amidst all the terrible news, that there are still good people in the world, he added.

“To me that’s the biggest thing is, we found new friends, and our faith in humanity is strengthened,” he said, “as we meet wonderful people who are considerate and thoughtful.”

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Renée Jean

Business and Tourism Reporter