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Blizzard in Spain kills four and brings much of nation to a standstill

A woman skis across Plaza Mayor in Madrid on SaturdayAndrea Comas)
A woman skis across Plaza Mayor in Madrid on Saturday.
(Andrea Comas / Associated Press)

A persistent blizzard has blanketed large parts of Spain with 50-year record levels of snow, killing at least four people and leaving thousands trapped in cars, train stations and airports as the snow kept falling on Saturday.

The bodies of a man and woman were recovered by the Andalucía region emergency service after their car was washed away by a flooded river near the town of Fuengirola. The Interior Ministry said a 54-year-old man was also found dead in Madrid under a big pile of snow. A homeless man died of hypothermia in the northern city of Zaragoza, the local police department reported.

More than half of Spain’s provinces remained on alert Saturday afternoon, five of them on their highest level of warning. In the capital, authorities activated the red alert for the first time since the system was adopted four decades ago and called in the military to rescue people trapped in their vehicles.

More than 20 inches of snow fell in the capital. By 7 a.m. Saturday, the AEMET national weather agency had recorded the highest 24-hour snowfall seen since 1971 in Madrid.

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Sandra Morena, who became trapped late on Friday as she commuted to her night shift as a security guard in a shopping center, arrived home, on foot, after an army emergency unit helped her out on Saturday morning.

“It usually takes me 15 minutes, but this time it has been 12 hours freezing, without food or water, crying with other people because we didn’t know how we were going to get out of there,” said Morena, 22.

“Snow can be very beautiful but spending the night trapped in a car because of it is no fun,” she added.

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AEMET had warned that some regions would be receiving more than 24 hours of continuous snowfall due to the odd combination of a cold air mass stagnant over the Iberian Peninsula and the arrival of a warmer weather system from the south.

The system is expected to move northeast Saturday. to be followed by a cold snap, the agency said.

Transport Minster José Luis Ábalos warned that “snow is going to turn into ice and we will enter a situation perhaps more dangerous than what we have at the moment.”

He added that the priority was to assist those in need but also to ensure the supply chain for food and other basic goods.

“The storm has exceeded the most pessimistic forecasts we had,” Ábalos added.

Carlos Novillo, head of the Madrid emergency agency, said that more than 1,000 vehicles had become trapped, mostly on the city’s ring road and the main motorway that leads from the capital to the south, toward the Castilla La Mancha and Andalucia regions.

“The situation remains of high risk. This is a very complex phenomenon and a critical situation,” Novillo said Saturday morning in a message posted on social media.

“We ask all those who remain trapped to be patient, we will get to you,” he added.

Airport operator AENA said that the Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas International Airport, the main gateway in and out of the country, would remain closed throughout the day after the blizzard overwhelmed machines and workers trying to keep the runways clear.

All train service into and out of Madrid and between the south and the northeast of the country was suspended, railway operator Renfe said.

The storm had caused serious disruptions or closed altogether over 650 roads by Saturday morning, according to Spain’s transit authorities, which urged people to stay indoors and avoid all non-essential travel.

The wintry weather even halted the country’s soccer league, with some La Liga top teams unable to travel for games.

The regions of Castilla La Mancha and Madrid, home to 8.6 million people, announced that schools would be closed at least on Monday and Tuesday.

In addition to breaking branches and toppling whole trees, the blizzard also yielded surreal images in Madrid, including a few brave skiers and a man on a dog sled seen on videos circulated on social media.

Lucía Vallés, a coach for a Madrid-based ski club, was thrilled to see the white layers of snow accumulating literally at her doorstep.

“I never imagined this, it has been a gift,” the 23-year-old said. “But I’ve never had so many photographs taken of me,” she added as she slid past the late-18th century building that hosts the Prado Museum.


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