PHOENIX (AP) — Lauren Weinberg was seen leaving her mother's home in Phoenix on Dec. 11 and later said her car became stuck in the snow a day later in east-central Arizona. The SUV carrying the Higgins family was buried in a snowdrift early this week in rural New Mexico.
The frigid ordeals that followed for occupants of both vehicles ended with their rescues Wednesday. Authorities said all are recovering at hospitals.
Coconino County sheriff's spokesman Gerry Blair said Weinberg was driving around with no specific destination when she drove south from Winslow toward the Mogollon Rim — a prominent line of cliffs that divides the state's high country from the desert.
The paved road turned into a dirt road. Weinberg stopped her vehicle at a fence line and when she attempted to move a gate she found that it was stuck in the snow, according to Blair. Soon, her car was stuck as well.
The 23-year-old undergraduate at Arizona State University had two candy bars with her and told a sheriff's deputy that she put snow in a water bottle and placed it atop the sedan she was driving so it would melt, Blair said. She wasn't prepared for the winter conditions and did not have a heavy coat or blankets, Blair said.
Two U.S. Forest Service employees on snowmobiles found her about 45 miles southeast of Winslow while they were checking if gates on forest roads were closed.
"I am so thankful to be alive and warm," Weinberg said through a spokeswoman at the Flagstaff Medical Center, where she was taken. "Thank you everyone for your thoughts and prayers, because they worked. There were times I was afraid but mostly I had faith I would be found."
Other than being cold, hungry and thirsty, Weinberg was in good condition, lucid and speaking coherently, Blair said.
Weather forecasters and authorities said her survival was remarkable, given the more than 2 feet of snow in the area and temperatures that dipped to near zero some of the nights. Blair said Weinberg had a cellphone but the battery was dead.
"It's pretty harrowing that she'd been there since the 12th in an area that's totally foreign to her," he said. "We're certainly very happy that we found her, and we found her alive."
Phoenix police told local TV station KTVK that Weinberg had purchased items at convenience stores in Chandler, Superior and Show Low on Dec. 11 and in Holbrook the following day, but there was no other sign of her since then
In New Mexico, rescuers had to dig through 4 feet of ice and snow to free the Higgins family, whose red GMC Yukon got stuck on U.S. 56 near Springer when a blizzard moved through the area Monday, state police said.
Rescuers found David and Yvonne Higgins and their 5-year-old daughter Hannah clinging to each other and lethargic early Wednesday morning. The family is recovering at Miners Colfax Medical Center in Raton.
David Higgins told The Associated Press he and his wife both have pneumonia but his daughter is fine.
The family, who had left their home near League City, Texas, on Sunday for a ski trip in northern New Mexico, started to hit bad weather soon after they crossed into New Mexico on Monday afternoon. Eventually, visibility dropped to zero.
"It was white. You couldn't even see the yellow line," David said.
The snow stopped the family in their tracks. David Higgins tried backing up and then driving forward again. He made some progress but then the back end slipped around and the vehicle started to slide down an embankment.
He was able to keep the car running for a couple of hours, but when he wanted to clear the exhaust pipe, his door was blocked.
"By 9 or 10 Monday night, I realized there was solid snow outside my window. I tried to shove my arm through the top of the window," the 48-year-old father said. "I pushed as hard as I could. My arm went about 16 inches and there was still snow."
The Higginses had plenty of water to drink, sandwiches, chips and Chex mix. But as the hours passed, it seems as if they were working harder to breathe inside the buried SUV.
"We weren't sure of it, but we think we were running out of air. That was spooky," he said.
Higgins was able to reach his brother in Texas by cellphone and the distress call was relayed to state police, which launched a search Tuesday evening.
The National Guard was called out, along with state transportation workers. State highway trucks with plows and rescuers in four-wheel-drive vehicles pushed through heavy snow and drifts as high as 10 feet as teams probed the snow looking for the family's SUV.
One of the rescuers hit the hood, and the digging started.
"They pulled us up and out of it," he said. "The rescuer took pictures and it looked like a rabbit hole. We were 3 to 4 feet above the vehicle."
"Tired and whooped" is how Higgins described his family after their ordeal.
Whether they would make it home in time for Christmas was still unclear.
Higgins had a simple message for travelers this winter: Throw a case of water and a sleeping bag in the car.
"It will be there if you need it," he said.
The rescues came after an elderly New Mexico couple took a wrong turn early this month and got stranded on a remote forest road in eastern Arizona. They survived two winter storms over five days before the woman collapsed and died as they tried to hike to safety.
Susan Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, N.M.