Public Safety

Woman survives 3 days stuck in blizzard on Iowa dirt road

72-year-old rescued by passing snowmobilers in rural Fairfield

Terry Harnish rests comfortably on a sofa in her friend Carmen Quinton’s home in Fairfield. Harnish is thankful she can relax now after spending three tense days stranded in a car on a dirt road north of Fairfield. (ANDY HALLMAN/Ledger photo)
Terry Harnish rests comfortably on a sofa in her friend Carmen Quinton’s home in Fairfield. Harnish is thankful she can relax now after spending three tense days stranded in a car on a dirt road north of Fairfield. (ANDY HALLMAN/Ledger photo)
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FAIRFIELD — Seventy-two-year-old Terry June Harnish took a wrong turn while traveling to a friend’s house on Thanksgiving.

It was a seemingly innocent mistake. Who hasn’t done that before? But on this day, the wrong turn was just the beginning of her woes. While trying to turn around on a dirt road, her car got stuck. She tried to walk to a nearby farmhouse but collapsed when her shoes filled with mud. She returned to her car, where she remained for three days until a couple of young men discovered her during Sunday night’s blizzard.

Fortunately, Harnish is now safe and sound, but the memory of her ordeal will stay with her for years to come.

A Thanksgiving to forget

Harnish hails from Hubbards, a small fishing village near Halifax, Nova Scotia. She’s been coming to Fairfield regularly since 1983, and lived here from 1989 to 1994. She came to Fairfield a few weeks ago on Nov. 16 to spend six weeks visiting old friends.

On Thanksgiving, she ate lunch with friends on the campus of Maharishi University of Management before heading to visit other friends in the area, planning to drive to their home in a rental car she picked up the day before. Somewhere along the way, Harnish got off the main road.

“It was pavement ... and suddenly it became a dirt road,” Harnish said. “I started to fishtail in the mud.”

Undaunted by the dirt, Harnish persevered, traveling over a few hills before realizing she was in trouble. She was now keenly aware this was not the way to her friends’ house, so she reversed in a cornfield and headed back toward the pavement. But before she could return to a hard-surface road, her car veered into a rut and got stuck in the mud. Her wheel well filled with sludge, and try as she might, the car wouldn’t budge.

Harnish thought she could walk to a farmstead she’d seen a couple hills back. It was a nice day for late November, about 50 degrees, and she knew people were at the farmstead because she saw cars drive up to it. Harnish said she was dressed “like I would be for summer in Nova Scotia.”

Mud roads

Walking on the dirt road was no easy task. Her shoes filled with mud and she could hardly move her feet. Complicating matters further was that she just had her knee replaced.

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“I attempted a few steps and fell headfirst into the mud,” she said. “I was saturated in it.”

After spending about 30 minutes trying to compose herself, Harnish made another attempt, but this time fell backward into the mud. She lay there for what she estimated was about two hours before summoning the energy to get up. By this point, it was getting dark, and she realized her best option was to return to her car.

“It took me six hours to get to the car. I didn’t get there until 1:30 in the morning,” she said. “I was drenched from back to front. My feet were so encrusted with mud that when I finally got in, there was mud all over the car.”

Her car key was also caked in mud, and her hands, ailing from arthritis, could not get it into the ignition. Harnish had a cellphone, but did not call 911 because she assumed it wouldn’t work in America because her phone is from Canada. She tried to reach every friend and relative she knew in either country, but none of her calls went through.

Sleeping in the car

Harnish was resigned to spending the night in her car. She put down both front seats and tried to sleep, with little success. She was still covered in mud.

“I was so wet, and it was so cold,” she said. “My beautiful coat is covered in mud. I hope there’s a dry cleaner nearby who can help me with it.”

By Friday, Harnish was determined to clean off the key so she could start the car to warm up. Though she had a full tank of gas, she had no idea how much longer she would be marooned on the road. To conserve fuel, she ran the car for only 10 minutes at a time.

The one island of fortune in a sea of bad luck was that Harnish had stopped at a grocery store before heading out on her journey and purchased a Christmas fruitcake and a bottle of kombucha.

“Very slowly, I picked off pieces of the fruitcake and drank the kombucha,” she said.

Harnish was starting to lose hope. Because she was in such a remote location, she knew she was unlikely to encounter any passing motorists.

Search begins

Harnish had been staying in Fairfield with Carmen Quinton, whom she has known for 40 years. Quinton became concerned when she hadn’t seen or heard from Harninsh by Friday morning.

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She first called friends then the police when Harnish was no where to be found. The Fairfield Police Department issued an alert for law enforcement agencies in southeast Iowa to be on the lookout for Harnish.

Quinton and other friends left no stone unturned in their search. They drove around looking at all the trailheads in the area, hoping to spot Harnish’s car.

Saturday was noticeably colder than Friday. By then, Harnish had run out of kombucha but still had fruitcake. She was down to a quarter of a tank of gas, and she knew that if she kept the engine running, she would soon run out.

Blizzard

By Sunday, Harnish had been missing long enough that police issued a national missing person’s alert. That was also the day of the blizzard, which Harnish knew was coming from listening to the car radio. Not only was she stranded on a dirt road, she was about to be covered in a snowdrift. She began to think nobody would find her.

But that’s when her luck turned a corner. Around 7:30 p.m., after the blizzard had been going strong for several hours, Harnish saw snowmobiles. This was her chance to be rescued.

The snowmobilers were Jared Horras and Malcolm Myers, 2017 graduates of Pekin High School.

“We saw there was a lot of snow on that road, so we decided to go down it,” said Horras, who lives on a farm about 2 miles from where Harnish got stuck. “To our surprise, we saw a car there.”

Harnish turned on her headlights and hazard lights, hoping to get their attention. Horras and Myers approached the car to see if someone was inside.

“I scraped snow off the window, and I saw an older woman in there. I asked her what happened, and she said she had been there for four days,” Horras said. “I was amazed.”

“I was so relieved to see them,” Harnish said.

Horras called his father, George Horras, who drove his heated-cab tractor to the scene to pick up Harnish and drive her to the highway, where a police officer was waiting.

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Police wanted her to go straight to the hospital, but Harnish explained that she had been subsisting on a fruitcake and kombucha while in the car, and that she would rather go home to take a shower.

“My rings were like globs. I couldn’t move my fingers,” she said.

Safe at home

The police officer took Harnish to Quinton’s house. That night, Harnish told friends over social media that she was finally safe and “out of the cornfields.” After eating a few hearty meals at Quinton’s house, Harnish went to the Jefferson County Health Center the following day for an exam. Doctors told her she had a brainstem bleed, perhaps as a result of her fall in the mud. She was taken by ambulance to Iowa City and later discharged, with doctors prescribing medication for the brain bleed.

Four days after her rescue, Harnish said she’s doing fine and doesn’t feel any lingering effects from spending more than three days with so little nourishment and no bathroom.

As of Thursday, Harnish’s rental car was still stuck in the mud. A representative from a towing company has seen the car and told Harnish there is no way he could get it out. She hopes someone with a tractor can tie chains around it to pull it out.

Extended stay

Since her ordeal, Harnish has decided to extend her stay in Fairfield. She was initially going to stay until Dec. 27, but now she’s thinking of staying until March.

“I have a huge family of friends here,” she said.

Harnish is busy planning a storytelling festival set for Dec. 21 at Morning Star Studio. It will be called “Once Upon a Winter Solstice.”

Telling stories is what she does for a living in her native Canada, but no story she has told can compare to her experience of spending Thanksgiving weekend stranded in a cornfield, she said.

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