LONDON – Extreme winter weather swept across Western Europe on Saturday, leaving thousands of passengers stranded at London’s main international airport and claiming several lives in Spain, Portugal, Scotland and France, including those of three Mali-bound soldiers.
The frigid temperatures also caused delays and cancellations on major railway lines, and transport authorities warned of further traffic disruptions with more blizzards forecast for Sunday.
In London, thousands of passengers were forced to camp out on the floor at Heathrow airport overnight as hundreds of flights to and from the British capital were canceled. “There are lots of bodies lying around in the airport. If feels like there’s been a natural disaster,” Jerry Meng from Los Angeles, whose flight to New York was canceled, told the BBC.
London’s other main airports, Gatwick and Stansted, managed to operate fairly normally Saturday.
For Sunday, snow was expected to reduce traffic at Heathrow by 20 percent, and French air traffic authorities ordered a 40 percent reduction in takeoffs and landings at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports.
Snow and ice covering large parts of France led to several fatal car crashes, one of which killed three French soldiers about to join comrades fighting in Mali, authorities said. The troops were traveling in an army car with their military packs and weapons when their vehicle crashed in an accident involving two trucks and two cars.
In total, six people were killed on French roads Saturday, and the nation’s weather services forecast more snow across the northern and southeastern parts of the country Sunday.
In the Scottish Highlands on Saturday, an avalanche killed four climbers and seriously injured one, while a sixth survived, police said. The cold snap also led to power outages, particularly in Northern Ireland where at least 900 homes were without electricity Saturday.
In Southern Europe, the fierce weather claimed several lives, killing two men in Spain as the force of winds whipping the country’s southeastern coast caused a wall to collapse on them in the city of Cartagena.
ADIF, Spain’s national rail operator, said wind damage forced delays to high-speed trains linking Madrid with the major cities of Seville and Valencia.
Spain’s Interior Ministry issued an alert for the weekend, warning of snow nationwide with winds up to 100 kph and rough seas in the Mediterranean.
In Portugal, an elderly man was killed after strong winds hurled him into a door in the central municipality of Abrantes, leaving him with head injuries that proved to be fatal. Two teenagers were hospitalized after a chimney collapsed in Agualva, in Lisbon’s suburbs.
Some welcomed the icy spell.
Eastern Orthodox devotees braved the cold snap and plunged into holes cut into frozen rivers and ponds across Russia to celebrate the Orthodox Epiphany. Thousands plunged into icy waters Saturday as temperatures dipped below minus 40 degrees Celsius in some places.
The purification ritual, commemorating the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, sees devout Orthodox Russians plunge into cross-shaped holes cut into frozen ponds and rivers. Devotees believe the water takes on sacred powers during the holiday. In line with custom, men and women clad in long white shirts or bikinis, submerged themselves three times into the ice-holes in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
In Moscow, hundreds of people gathered for their freezing dip at a park pond in the city center, where air temperatures fell below minus 10 degrees.
Children also took part in the ancient rite, which has been passed on through generations since early czarist times.
The somewhat unusual Orthodox ceremony takes place every year from midnight to midnight between Jan. 18 and 19, mainly in Russia.
Bathers believe the plunge will purify them and the cold water will strengthen their bodies.
The Russian Interior Ministry estimated more than 2 million people had taken part in the ceremony by Saturday.
Local media reported that millions of people living in the city of Yakutsk, in northeastern Siberia, had bathed in the Lena River, where outside temperatures of below minus 40 degrees were recorded.