'Never to be forgotten weekend'

Local history - I-80 coffee shop, West Liberty first responders saved boys life in '79 blizzard


Approaching the weekend of Jan. 12-14, 1979, Jim Rowen, now 91, and his wife, Joyce, 92, never would have anticipated what they would encounter while operating the former Coffee Town Restaurant at West Liberty’s I-80 exit 259 in Brooke Plaza.

The couple, who managed the restaurant from 1969-1987, relived that memorable weekend recently from their home in Phoenix, where they’ve lived for the past 18 years. It was the night a community, strangers and restaurant staff would come together to help save the life of a little boy from Clearwater, Florida who somehow got stranded in one of the worst blizzards of the decade on a journey to Des Moines.

With the help of a daily weather record for the purpose of adjusting the projected inventory of weekly needs for the same time period the following year, Jim Rowen helped recall the night when a two-year-old boy somehow got misplaced.

As such, on Friday, Jan, 12, his notes indicate the forecast for Saturday predicted one to two inches of snow, light winds, with 10-15 degree overnight temperatures. Snow was forecast to start between midnight and 4 a.m. Coincidentally, Jim was planning a trip to Indiana that weekend to attend an uncle’s funeral.

Coffee Town consisted of a coffee shop, dining room and banquet room. It was designed to accommodate over 200 guests when operating as a normal service restaurant. When modified into a banquet configuration, the same rooms could seat over 300 guests, where, on a normal three-day weekend during the winter, the restaurant would feed over 1,000 guests.

As Jim felt things were under control, he departed Friday evening for Indiana, leaving Joyce in charge. “It was a smart decision,” he said, adding, “But for Joyce and the rest of my family, my travel choices would impact their memories even to this day.”

The storm started about 8 p.m. Friday night, and presented itself as a normal Iowa snowstorm. But as the night progressed, the storm increased in intensity, and by daylight, Saturday, Jan. 13, it was apparent that with eight inches of snow and more in the forecast, the order of the day was, ‘All Hands on Deck.’

The normal truck parking at the fuel pavilion was at capacity by noon, the motel was already full, and restaurant employees were notifying family members they would be staying at the business for the duration of the storm.

With the wind and snow creating issues on the interstate, the onset of subzero temperatures was now a safety issue for travelers. Traffic was at a snail’s pace with more and more travelers being stalled or stuck on the roadside.

This is where Joyce let her Kansas ‘growing-up-on-a-farm’ life skills kick in. She began setting up parameters for keeping the restaurant operating while still being able to provide safety, food and comfort for the unexpected guests. During the next 40 hours, over 150 people were bunked in for the duration of the storm.

Most of the professional drivers were able to stay with their trucks, and the motel patrons were able to make the 150-yard trek through ice and snow to secure food and beverage. Joyce assigned the small banquet room as sleeping quarters, and allowed no visiting or lounging there.

The large dining room was for sitting and visiting but the Rowens discovered a few deck of cards and checkers that also helped keep guests entertained, setting up group visiting circles.

No food was allowed in these two rooms, Jim said, because as a mother, Joyce knew who would have to take care of any the on a continuous basis, and they did not have extra employees for clean up duty.

As an unplanned blessing, two employees lived in the mobile home park connected to the complex, and the Rowans also owned a mobile home where their daughter lived. Those three units were used by the employees for showers and sleeping, thus allowing the crew on duty to remain safe and yet be able to work as needed.

Standed motorists

By the time darkness set in on Saturday evening, the stage was already set for what was to become a very intense and life changing 36 hours for many of the stranded visitors, residents of West Liberty, and the dedicated employees of Coffee Town.

A small stream of Interstate 80 travelers started making their way to safety at Coffee Town. They left their automobiles and 18-wheelers to trudge through all types and sizes of snow drifts that set up impassable barriers for their vehicles.

“It was because of this mass of vehicles that the most bazaar part of the weekend of white became an issue of intense and life changing events.” Jim said.

The Palmer family was traveling west on I-80 in their ’78 Chevy Caprice, carrying Jason, 10-year-old Edward (Eddie), 11-month sister Jody, mom Anna Palmer, and Anna’s brother and sister-in-law, Ted and Wanda Wessel, along with their young children, Allan and Julie. Anna’s two other sons, Todd and Dave, didn’t make the trip as they were in Arizona with their dad.

The family made the decision to pull off the interstate at the West Liberty exit, as many before them had done. “It was a smart move from a practical standpoint,” Jim says. “Except after they pulled off, they realized they were struck in a mass of stranded vehicles with no way through with normal car tires. The decision was made to stay in the car for safety and warmth.”

At one point, when waiting in their vehicle, Anna remembers a deputy or sheriff knocked on their window and wanted to know if he could help. Anna asked if he would help take the children to a shelter for safety. The deputy said he’d be back, but he never returned.

The situation was fine until later in the early morning hours of Sunday, Jan. 14, when their car ran out of gas. The group decided they should make the short but extremely dangerous trek toward the lights of the service plaza.

During their walk toward safety and warmth, a couple of Good Samaritan long haul truckers suggested the group split up and take a warm-up break in the cabs of two trucks. It was during this time that Jason was somehow forgotten outside the vehicles.

A forgotten lad

Young Jason found minimal shelter between the dual wheels of one of the trucks. Along with exposure to the subzero temps and driving winds, he had also lost his mittens and boots. His little hands were frozen to his face. In the few minutes that transpired before the adults realized he was missing and were able to locate him, Jason had lapsed into unconsciousness. He was quickly swooped up and carried to safety and the warm confines of the restaurant.

Upon entering the coffee shop, Joyce was approached and told the little boy needed help. In life and death moments involving a child, the instincts of a mother of four kicked in automatically, and Joyce rushed Jason to the office where he could be placed on a proper cushion for care and examination.

It was clear he needed a doctor. She called the local physician, and unlike today, was able to reach him directly. Upon hearing the details, he asked her to see if a doctor was among the many travelers in the restaurant. If not, Joyce was to call him back.

Finding medical aid

Joyce asked over the PA system if a medical person was in the building. As more blessings started to come into play, a gentleman came forward who was a dentist and offered to help with the situation. This man’s name or identity was never learned, except Joyce said he was a humble and good man. Jason’s mom Anna remarks of the dentist, “It was just meant to be.”

After seeing the youngster and hearing the details, the dentist asked if there was any type of University Hospital nearby. One indeed was, albeit an impassable 23 miles away.

The dentist phoned the Burn Center at University Hospitals in Iowa City, who proceeded to advise him what steps to take. First, Jason was placed in about 90-degree water. As most restaurants have large sinks, this process was easy to accomplish. Several people assisted in keeping Jason’s body under the water while holding his head up. Within just a few minutes he regained consciousness. His first words were ‘I want to get out’ and ‘where is my mommy.’

University Hospitals remained in constant contact with the dentist, and continued to advise and encourage him while waiting for the paramedics to arrive.

Firemen to the rescue

A parallel series of events were also taking place that night which Jim believed had an equal place of importance in the story. West Liberty Fire Department was set into action and challenged to figure out how to get Jason to University Hospitals, as soon as possible.

The fire department was able to secure an enormous gravel end loader from Wendling Quarries near Atalissa, Iowa. They used it to plow through the drifts blocking the six miles of roadway between West Liberty and Brooke Plaza. Their work allowed the ambulance to make the trek.

The length of time it took for all these pieces to come together and resolve the emergency that had been going on for some time is not exactly clear to Jim now, but when his close friend and member of the fire department Jim McCrabb walked into the restaurant, Joyce felt the release of a ton of pressure. McCrabb was a ‘take charge’ kind of person, and he immediately sprang into action.

The fire department crew and paramedics took care of Jason, and within minutes, the humongous end loader, ambulance and a couple four-wheel drive trucks were heading west to Iowa City.

Somewhere along the way they met up with an ambulance crew from University Hospitals, who transported Jason to the Burn Center.

A year of recovery

Jason was in the hospital for more than a year, undergoing many skin grafts and surgeries. His mom, Anna, was there at his side every day, except for an occasional weekend trip back home to Des Moines to see family. Fortunately, Jason only lost two fingers.

The Shriners organization became involved and helped pay the family’s hospital bills, as well as providing him with special shoes and other items. Jason went on to have outpatient care at University Hospitals for another year or so after discharge.

Jason adapted well, as it’s all he has ever known, Anna says. “He learned at a very young age to just do things on his own. And he’s kept that attitude.”

Jason started boxing at about age four, as part of his physical therapy. He joined a local family-owned boxing club. He started drawing at age eight. Tattoos caught his eye at about age 14.

He was never coddled, and he appreciated that. And surprisingly Jason says the cold doesn’t bother him much, after all, he lives in Iowa! He’s had no more surgeries on his hands or feet since childhood. “They work well, I suppose. Not really anything to compare them to,” he says.

Jason has few if any memories of that night 40-plus years ago. “A blessing really, I suppose. All this is my normal,” he said.

Meeting a hero

Many years later, Jason shared that he met the guy who was the driver of the truck that he was found under. He thanked him and bought him a beer. The driver didn’t think he’d done anything special.

Today, Jason is married and has six children, and with his wife, owns and operates a successful Des Moines tattoo shop known as Twisted Ink.

“The strength and stamina of the people who made up the Coffee Town employees, the stranded travelers, the citizens of the West Liberty Fire Department, and the University Hospitals personnel, showed what can happen when everyone pulls together for a need greater than their own,” Jim Rowen concludes.

That night, more than 42 years ago, Jason was the focus and the reason for a community rescue that affected the lives of many. Jim says he believes the average American citizen will always step up and contribute whatever it takes to put a great finish to stories like . . . “A Never to be Forgotten Iowa Weekend.”

Phyllis Owen Sterba is a history columnist for the Index. She can be reached through indexnews@Lcom.net