The Storm of the Century:
Other than perhaps a Red Sox World Series victory, there is nothing in New England that brings the community together quite like really bad weather. Affecting everyone equally, a coming storm seems to get strangers talking: “How big’s the storm?” “Did you hear the weather report?” “Are they closing the schools?” After it passes, big storms become local heirlooms, testaments to the grittiness of those who survived.
And for an entire generation of New Englanders, there had never before been bad weather like the Blizzard of ’78. It has not been forgotten. Today the blizzard is stored away in memory banks to be brought out each winter as new storms come and go, unable to match its daunting reputation.
No doubt the Blizzard of ’78 was an enormous storm, but the context in which it arrived made it that much worse. It is safe to say that by the time February 6th, 1978 came along, New Englanders had been pretty-well trained to not pay much attention to the weathermen. It had been a difficult winter already. On January 21st, as most forecasters predicted only rain, New England had been blanketed by a major league snowstorm that dropped 21 inches of snow in Massachusetts and downed a record number of power lines in Rhode Island. This forerunner to the Blizzard of ’78 had brought so much snow that the roof of the Hartford Civic Center actually collapsed from the weight. When forecasters began predicting another big storm, nobody thought too much of it.
This storm would prove to be a whole other matter entirely, but in 1978 it was not always so easy for meteorologists to foresee the difference between a big storm and a gigantic storm. It is not that local weathermen missed the storm exactly. It was more a matter of degree. With the still infant satellite technology of the day, they knew something big was on its way, but they certainly didn´t forecast the storm of the century. Bostonians woke up that Monday with the front-page of the Boston Globe featuring an article telling readers to “make believe it’s summer, it may just soften winter’s next sting.” There were weatherman saying somewhere in the range of 10 or 12 inches and CBS’s Harvey Leonard went on the air at 7:30 AM telling Bostonians that “We are going to get hit hard,” but no one was suggesting that New Englanders should stay home and not go to work. It was just another winter nor’easter.
Besides, most locals were not really listening anyway. The average weather watcher in 1978 was a more cynical specimen than that of today. Used to sliding blackboard weather maps and accompanying faulty predictions, it was a generation unfamiliar with the rotating satellite images, the zooming Google virtual 3-D maps and the meticulous 10-day forecasts that we see today. In those days, weathermen sometimes missed the call and everybody knew it.
That was the scene as New Englanders headed off to work and school on Monday morning. When a few snowflakes began falling around 10 AM, it was a peaceful scene on the ground. But up above things were spinning wildly out of control.
The storm had originally formed as a weak, extra-tropical cyclone off the coast of South Carolina. But soon it ran into an arctic cold front moving across the Appalachians. When it combined with unusually strong high pressure over central Canada and very cold air, the mix became a kind of nightmare perfect storm. To top it off, the blizzard was essentially pinned in over New England for 36 hours, reigning snow down on the region as it could not escape into the Atlantic Ocean.
By 1:00 PM, the snow began falling at an alarming rate --- up to two inches an hour in some places. As the snow began to accumulate, commuters all over New England began to size up their drive home, calculating when they should hit the road. In state capitol buildings in Boston, Hartford and Providence, government employees were freed for home and soon a slow and steady early rush hour began to build up on the highways. All the while, the snow kept falling, harder and harder.
As late afternoon set in, the conditions on the roads began to worsen. Motorists began proceeded at a slower and slower crawl until the wind and snowfall was so bad, the progression was almost standing still. As cars and trucks began to slip and slide, accidents further snarled traffic. On northbound Route 93, a jackknifed tractor trailer spun wildly to a stop, blocking traffic in both directions. Snowplows sat in traffic as the snow continued to fall. When the Neponset River further flooded Route 93 in Milton, the highway was completely shut down. A similar scene unfolded on Route 128 when a jackknifed 18-wheeler stopped traffic near Route 138 in Canton.
For drivers stuck on area highways, a fear factor began to set in. What may have begun as a fun, winter adventure was beginning to get downright scary. As traffic stopped and the blizzard kept on coming, drivers were now trapped in their cars with few options left. The wind began to howl upwards of 70 miles per hour in the Boston area --- and in the days before cell phones and Blackberries, sitting in a white-walled car on a woodsy highway was an even lonelier and more unsettling prospect. Each motorist soon faced a choice: Try to flee through a screaming blizzard to some unknown safety or stay and nurse the gas waiting for rescue as snow piled around the car. Many New Englanders would end up spending days in those automobiles and a few would not make it out alive.
As nightfall came, the anxiety level around New England varied greatly depending on where you were and what shelter you had. As the winds picked up and the snow kept falling, government officials were beginning to see that they had a major emergency on their hands. Governor Michael Dukakis, the first-term, good government guru was on the air for his monthly radio show at the WHDH studios with host David Brudnoy. The calls that poured in displayed the difference in caller circumstances. One minute Dukakis was declaring a state of emergency and saying, “I am pleading with Winthrop Shore Drive residents to evacuate their homes!” while the next minute he was fielding calls from concerned citizens asking such questions as, “How come the state hasn’t held a civic service examination for traffic supervisor for three years?” Later he responded to a caller asking “Was the state commission against discrimination really serious when it ordered restaurants and bars to stop serving ladies at lower prices than men at certain hours?”
At least Dukakis was in the state. Boston Mayor Kevin White was stuck on a sun-filled vacation for not the first time when a blizzard had hit the city. Down in Palm Beach at the time, White slowly made his way back to Boston and apparently tried to make amends by saying that “"The weather was awful, just lousy there too, Katherine and I froze. I had no vacation, didn't even swim in the pool."
In Connecticut, Governor Ella Grasso was trying to drive from the Governor’s Mansion to the state storm center in downtown Hartford. She didn’t quite make it. Forced to abandon her car and walk the remaining blocks to the state armory, Grasso was not slow in taking the storm seriously. Thanks to Dukakis and Grasso, both state and National Guard troops would soon be on their way. A massive effort was made to clear Logan Airport runways for some 200 troops arriving on 27 C-130 and C-141 flights from Fort Bragg and Fort Devens.
Elsewhere attitudes were a bit more cavalier. After all, what was a little snow when there was a hockey game to be played? Incredibly, some 11,666 college hockey die-hards made their way to the Boston Garden to witness the annual Beanpot tournament where Harvard was to play Northeastern first and B.C. matched up against B.U. in the nightcap.
Things weren’t nearly so festive out on the shore, both north and south of Boston. While inner New England had some serious snowfall on their hands, cities like Hull, Revere and Scituate had something approaching a hurricane. Winds topped 100 miles per hour along the coast and waves began lashing the shore, sometimes ripping off doors and roofs while making a mockery of local seawalls.
Tragedy was sure to follow. Sally Lanzikos had kept her 5 year-old daughter Amy home from school that morning with a cold. But as the blizzard worsened and winds ripped, mother and daughter became trapped in their home on Jericho Road in Scituate as 17-foot high waves battered the shore. Police and fire crews told her to hang on. Separated from her husband, Sally held a candle at the window hoping to be rescued. Finally around midnight, a fire fighter rescue team arrived. Sally, Amy, and the family dog piled them into a 14-foot skiff along with two rescuers and neighbors Edward and Alice Hart. But just as they headed off for another house with a candle shining, an enormous wave broke over the seawall tearing Amy from her mother’s arms. When the others in the boat stood up to grab her, the boat capsized. The fire fighters were eventually able to pull Sally and Alice Hart back in, but the little girl and Edward Hart were lost to the sea. Norwell Deputy Fire Chief Herbert Fulton later said, “I grabbed the hand of Amy three or four or five times and I could just not hold onto her.” A strong swimmer, Sally attempted to swim toward shore to find her lost girl but was almost drowned in the process. She was later to say that “If I knew Amy was gone that night, I wouldn't have come back in. Or if she had to die, I wish we could have died together, so I could hold and comfort her."
There were to be other snow-related deaths as well. More than two dozen New Englanders succumb to heart attacks as they shoveled heavy snow. Construction worker Ronald Thompson was killed by an out-of-control car on Route 128 in Dedham. 61 year-old Melvin Demit was lighting a furnace in his basement in Nahant when water crashed into the house and engulfed him in flames. And days later, 15 year-old Donna Lee Porter was electrocuted when she stepped on a snow-covered 8,000-volt live wire while walking with friends from a Hanson shopping center.
Out on Route 128, some of those trapped in their cars also met a deadly fate. Not realizing that snow had clogged their tailpipes, some motorists died of asphyxiation. Marie Jennings had taken her friend Claire Young to Pondville Hospital in Norfolk for her cancer treatment. The women got stuck in a snowdrift on an access road on the way home and were later found by rescue workers dead inside the car. In Winchester, 11 year-old Matthew Lawton and 12 year-old John Gangi were shoveling out a car in the Lawton driveway when they decided to sit inside and start the engine for warmth. They did not know to knock the snow from the car's tailpipe first. And 20 year-old Norman Cardin of Millbury died of asphyxiation in a buried car on Route 290 in Shrewsbury. Cardin was found wrapped in a blanket with his head on a pillow.
Others trapped on the highways were luckier. Some managed to trudge their way to homes, offices or industrial parks that bordered Route 128 and other roadways. More than 2,000 took shelter at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Needham where people slept in pews. 300 drivers were able to watch movies and eat popcorn while holed up at the Showcase Cinema just off the highway in Dedham.
Back in Boston, fans who exited the Garden after midnight following an easy B.U. victory were startled by the scene. Coach Jack Parker would later say that “"In reality, there was no reality until we came out of the building." Some spectators were forced to spend the next few days living at the arena, eating hot dogs, sleeping in the bleachers or locker rooms and as sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy later said, “Using combs and deodorant left behind by Terry O'Reilly and Wayne Cashman.”
Nearby in Boston Harbor, the sidewheeler Peter Stuyvesant which formed part of Anthony's Pier Four Restaurant had been wrecked. It blew off its concrete and steel cradle, which had been hammered into bedrock.
As New England woke to the morning of February 7th, not much had changed in the forecast. Snow continued to come down at an incredible rate as explosive winds pushed what had already fallen into mammoth-sized drifts. At the Massachusetts State House, those in control began to realize just how serious things had become. Governor Dukakis seemed to be all over the television, sporting wintery cardigans that would be forever tied to Blizzard memories for those fortunate enough to have power during the storm. But despite his cozy garb, Dukakis was all business, taking the unprecedented step of banning all non-emergency driving within the state. When Connecticut Governor Ella Grasso decided to take the same course, there were essentially no cars on the road for the first time since horse and buggy days. Rescue workers and snowplows continued unbearably long shifts looking for those trapped on Route 128 and other highways, while harbormasters and Coast Guard boats tried to rescue those trapped in the horrific scene on the coast.
Tales were later told all over New England of heroic acts that saved lives. Scituate assistant harbormaster Elmer Pooler was such a hero. Early in the storm he climbed onto an army cargo truck and helped rescue families from Lighthouse Point as enormous waves washed over the vehicle and ice blocks flew at him from the river.
Later a Coast Guard rescue boat got tangled in some mooring lines and lost its way. Up against the sea wall and rocks behind T.K. O’Malley’s, Pooler headed back out into the storm again. Eventually each of the crew members would literally jump out of the boat and into Pooler’s rescuing arms.
Others recorded great feats in their lines of work. Boston Herald photographer Kevin Cole, trapped way out in Manomet spotted a man at a gas station and offered him money for a ride. They drove to Hyannis Airport where Cole bribed a flight instructor to fly him above Boston to catch photos for the paper. Meanwhile, two kidney technicians, Tony Gugliotta and Ken McKinnon, walked 18 miles from their homes in Hanover and Hanson to get to work at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital.
Some had no choice but to travel in the storm. Mary Kenney's contractions began on Wednesday morning in Weymouthport. After her husband called 911 and arranged to have a helicopter land at a nearby basketball court, it turned out the space wasn't wide enough. So a neighbor pulled Kenney up Fort Point Road on a toboggan to a waiting minivan. After the minivan could not get through, Kenney and her husband wound up walking to the beach where they reached a police cruiser which delivered them to an ambulance. Finally, the ambulance proceeded to South Shore Hospital where her son Kristopher was born just 80 minutes after they arrived.
But elsewhere there were events without happy endings. The bravest and most tragic attempted rescue came in Salem Harbor where the Greek oil tanker, the Good Hope, had issued a mayday call for help. Receiving word of the tanker’s troubles, decorated Captain Frank Quirk and his crew boarded the 42-foot Coast Guard boat, the Can Do, to head out into the storm. Quirk and his shipmate Charlie Bucko had won the Mariner's Medal for heroism at sea for another rescue the year before. But as they set out, the blizzard picked up steam. Buffeted by winds of up to 110 miles per hour, things became more precarious. At 3:30 AM, The last radio transmission from Quirk came in: “Will hold on. Sure wish we could raise some power. It's really hopping out here, but we're making it." But in fact they were not. The blizzard had wrecked the Can Do's radar system and smashed through the windshield wiping out the electrical system. All 5 crew members were eventually lost.
Back inland other tragedies played out in less dramatic circumstances. Ten year-old Peter Gosselin of Uxbridge had last been seen on top of a neighborhood snow pile at noon on February 7th. After his older brothers could not find him, his parents and hundreds of residents went on an unsuccessful neighborhood search. It wasn’t until three weeks later when the Gosselin’s postman, Leo Lussier, noticed a child’s boot sticking out of a snow drift next to the front door of the family house. When police were called to the scene, they discovered that Peter Gosselin had suffocated to death in a snow bank just three feet from his front door.
Despite these horrific headlines that the storm produced and the 166 arrests due to looting in the area, many New Englanders found ways to come together and help one another during the Blizzard of ’78. Many would remember it as a time when neighbors helped neighbors and a special community spirit emerged. As Mike Barnicle put it in the first Boston Globe following the storm that was able to be distributed to readers, “Storms build a sense of community and sharing related directly to the number of inches on the ground. Two inches and people still snarl at each other, two feet and all men are brothers.” Indeed, there were tales of brotherly --- and sisterly --- love from across New England. In Hull, Lillian Willis and Joanne Fallon prepared food in a local middle school for more than 1,400 people in shifts of up to 36 hours over a ten day period. After four days, Willis's shoes fell apart.
Others made the best they could of the winter wonderland that had suddenly fallen in their midst. On college campuses like Harvard, UConn and Brown, a three-day snow party broke out as co-eds skied, tobogganed and sledded their way to a week without classes.
Finally, after a record 33 hours of continuous snowfall, the skies cleared over New England. It was now time to begin the biggest dig-out since the great snowstorm of 1888. And in coastal communities it was time to survey the wreckage and try to put lives back together (after a helicopter tour of the South Shore, Dukakis called the sight “Simply awesome”).
New Englanders also began to take stock of what had occurred. The statistics were staggering: 27.1 inches of snow in Boston (40 inches in parts of Rhode Island), 99 deaths, 4,500 injuries, 350 federal troops, $520 million dollars in damages, and 3,000 cars and 500 trucks abandoned on just an 8 mile stretch of Route 128. Two major landmarks were lost. The storm destroyed the setting for the "Outermost House," Naturalist Henry Beston's 1928 novel. The so-called Fo'Castle was carried off by waves after more than fifty years as a literacy icon. In Rockport, the red fishing shack called Motif #1, which had become famous worldwide as a subject of painters, was wrecked by high winds.
Indeed, when President Jimmy Carter declared large parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island to be federal disaster areas, no one was in a position to argue.
The Blizzard of ’78 was many things to many people: tragedy to some, a coming-together and winter fun for others. For everyone it was a whole heck of a lot of snow. Today the storm looms just as large in the collective psyche as it did in the days following the blizzard. As the years go by there will be fewer and fewer New Englanders who will be able to recall the Blizzard of ’78 firsthand. Yet until another storm comes along to take the crown, there will be youngsters all across New England each winter listening to grandparents tell them, “You think this is a storm, you ain’t seen nothing.”
Channel 7 meteorologist Harvey Leonard warned Bostonians, "We are going to get hit hard."
The first real snowflakes began falling around 10 AM.
Soon high winds and more than 2 inches of snow per hour turned the region white.
That didn't stop hockey from taking place at the Garden.
On Route 128, jackknifed trucks slowed traffic until it stopped moving altogether.
While on the shore, the storm was more like a hurricane.
Winds of more than 100 miles per hour wrecked houses along the north and south shore.
The sidewheeler Peter Stuyvesant was ripped off its moorings in Boston Harbor.
Houses on the South Shore were knocked about like toys.
Mayor Kevin White was in Palm Beach when the storm hit. He said he "froze."
Boston's Logan Airport was shut down except for National Guard flights which brought soldiers into New England.
Sweater-wearing Governor Michael Dukakis took to the air to reassure Bay Staters.
The Can Do, which would meet a tragic fate in Salem Harbor.
Captain Frank Quirk, the Can Do's skipper.
Peter Gosselin was found dead just three feet from his front door.
Motif #1, collapsed in Rockport.
Fun in Harvard Yard.
Amazing snow creations sprouted up around New England.
A Blizzard that will not be forgotten.