With no room at the inn, passengers spend night on bus during N.S. winter storm

Passengers, driver hunkered down in an Antigonish parking lot.

A fierce winter storm in northeastern Nova Scotia forced more than a dozen passengers to spend Tuesday night on a bus as they waited for the causeway to reopen to Cape Breton.

The winter storm was expected to bring up to 40 centimetres of snow to Cape Breton, with wind gusts up to 100 kilometres an hour. Thousands of Nova Scotia Power customers are still without power as of Wednesday night.

Maritime Bus driver Pat Leaman said he hit whiteout conditions as he drove from New Glasgow to Antigonish around 7:30 p.m. AT on Tuesday. As snow piled up on the highway, he learned the only connection to Cape Breton had closed.

"We wouldn't be able to get across so it was safer to stay where we were at in Antigonish," he told CBC Radio's Maritime Noon on Wednesday. "It's just unfortunate that there was no hotel rooms available so the only thing I could do was just stay with the people right on the bus."

Leaman said his company called around to several hotels in the area to get rooms for the stranded passengers, but all were full. At least one hotel had people sleeping in the lobby because the roads were so treacherous.

CBC: Thousands of Nova Scotia Power customers were still without power on Wednesday afternoon. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Thousands of Nova Scotia Power customers were still without power on Wednesday afternoon. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

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SEE ALSO: Winter storm sweeps through Atlantic Canada, leaving thousands without power

There was one hotel room available for Leaman, but he opted to stay on the bus.

"When I'm off the bus, nobody can stay on the bus so I decided to just stay with them," he said.

So Leaman, and about 18 passengers, hunkered down in a McDonald's parking lot in Antigonish for the night.

He said people tried their best to get some rest as they waited out the storm from about 9 p.m. until 4:30 a.m. when another bus arrived.

Leaman kept the bus idling on and off for warmth, but something went wrong around 2 a.m.

"One of the belts broke that actually runs the alternator and that's what keeps all the charge up for the power and everything, and it went down," he said, and the bus began to get cold.

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That's when Leaman walked over to an A&W across the street and asked a drive-thru worker to open the restaurant so the passengers could warm up, which he did.

Some people found shelter in hotel lobby

Andrea Brophy, general manager of Microtel Inn and Suites in Antigonish, said a handful of people arrived at her hotel after midnight looking for shelter from the storm, including two families with young kids.

"People were driving saying that they had seen seven cars, you know, off the road in like the span of 100 metres. It was bad driving, not something that anybody would want to be in," she said.

Even though all the rooms had filled up by early evening, staff brought out blankets and pillows for people to use.

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"We had people sleep in our meeting room, like we put a cot out and a mattress out and things like that," Brophy said. "People slept in the lobby. It was not a ton of people, but definitely more than we would normally have."

At around 9:30 p.m. the hotel put a call out on Facebook for anyone who needed a warm place to stay. Some people stayed a couple hours, and others the whole night, Brophy said.

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"Nobody wants to see somebody stranded, right? Like we're a community and we work together, help each other out."

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Help arrived at 4:30 a.m.

A second, much warmer, Maritime Bus arrived to pick up the bus passengers around 4:30 a.m. By then, the causeway had reopened so they could continue their trip to Sydney.

Leaman said he could have gone home at that point but he decided to help the new driver finish the run to Sydney since he was more familiar with the route.

The veteran driver has seen a lot of bad weather in his 41-year career.

CBC: Pat Leaman has been driving a bus for 41 years. (CBC)

Pat Leaman has been driving a bus for 41 years. (CBC)

"Oh yes, over the years it happens," Leaman said. "I mean, going to Sydney in the winter time, the biggest thing is the causeway. They shut that causeway down and then we can't get across and that's where sometimes we have to wait."

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Maritime Noon spoke with him as he was heading back to Halifax from Sydney on Wednesday morning — tired but relieved the long night was behind him.

He's sure his passengers feel the same.

"They were happy to get home, to get back safe," he said.

This article, originally published for CBC News, was written by Emma Smith. With files from CBC Radio's Maritime Noon.