NEW YORK - Hundreds of airline passengers were stranded for up to 10 hours on the tarmac at overworked John F. Kennedy International Airport. Ambulances struggled to get patients through unplowed streets. City buses sat abandoned in the snow.
The Christmas weekend blizzard proved to be the curse that keeps on giving Tuesday, as confusion and frustration snowballed in New York and the rest of the country.
Officials warned it could take until New Year's to rebook all passengers and straighten out the transportation mess created by the storm, which shut down all three of New York's major airports for 24 hours and caused a ripple effect across the nation.
European tourists who planned to fly into New York found themselves in Chicago when their flights were diverted. Travelers as far away as San Francisco were marooned, even though they were headed nowhere near the Northeast.
New York's airports struggled to get planes in and out. But some jets couldn't even get to the gate.
At Kennedy, a British Airways plane from London carrying 300 passengers waited five hours for an open gate, then two more hours for customs to open, said John Lampl, a spokesman for the airline. A Cathay Pacific flight that had been diverted to Toronto spent 10 hours on the tarmac, and a second Cathay Pacific plane with 250 people was still on the runway after eight hours as of Tuesday afternoon.
Airlines were dispatching planes to the airport without lining up gate space first, causing backups on the ground, said Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates Kennedy.
Cathay Pacific spokesman Gus Whitcomb said the planes had taken off under the assumption that they would have somewhere to go upon landing.
In general, U.S. airlines operating domestic flights are not allowed to keep passengers waiting on the tarmac for more than three hours. But the rule does not apply to international flights or foreign airlines.
The chaos was also reflected in New York's streets, where hundreds of abandoned city buses and dozens of ambulances still sat in the middle of snowdrifts from the storm, which clobbered the city with up to 2 feet of snow. A video that instantly went viral on the Internet showed city crews accidentally smashing a parked car as they tried to free a city construction vehicle.
Officials predicted that streets would not be clear until Wednesday, a day later than they first promised.
"And even then I'm not so sure," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.
Brooklyn resident Annie O'Daly waited more than 30 hours for help after falling and breaking her ankle about 8 p.m. Sunday, said Jim Leonhardt, her husband. An ambulance didn't arrive until 2:30 a.m. Tuesday. Leonhardt had to help paramedics carry her out onto the unplowed street and over a snowbank.
Officials pleaded with private companies to help out, and the city converted various vehicles in its fleet into snowplows, including trucks typically used for cleaning graffiti.
"It's a bad situation, and we're working together to correct it," Bloomberg said.
About 1,000 vehicles had been removed from three major New York City-area expressways alone, the mayor said. In New Jersey, police in helicopters counted at least 60 vehicles stranded along a highway at the shore. Motorists were taken in National Guard Humvees and other vehicles to shelters.
In Chicago, German traveler Michael Giesen and his wife, Merja Nevalainen-Giesen, were among the mostly European stranded passengers in gathered in the lobby of the Hilton inside Chicago O'Hare International Airport.
At least eight international flights were diverted to O'Hare. The Giesens, of Dusseldorf, left Germany on Monday afternoon with plans to celebrate New Year's Eve on the Hudson River on a boat. Instead they were flying to Pittsburgh and then were supposed to get on a seven-hour bus ride to New York.
Nevalainen-Giesen, 66, vowed to never travel in winter again, but her husband was philosophical about the whole thing.
"It's nature," Michael Giesen said. "Perhaps it's good to learn that nature can't be run, and we have to listen to nature."