February 9, 1973 started off as an ordinary winter day. The forecast was for rain and temperatures in the 40s. We were ready for a typical raw winter day. I was working overnights at WIS-TV in the middle of a major rewiring of the audio plant which needed to be done while we were off the air. During the early morning hours, while I worked, rain came through between 4 and 6 AM. I drove home at 6 in the tail end of the overnight rain under a grey overcast sky. When I woke up at 2 that afternoon, the temperatures were still above freezing but a light snow was beginning to fall. That was the first hint that something was wrong. It was ten degrees cooler than the forecast said it would be and snow is a rarity in Columbia, SC. I thought to myself; “This is a blown forecast!” I had no idea how badly the forecast for that day was missed.
At the time I drove a bright fire engine red Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia with the engine in the back and rear wheel drive. It was a great snow car, even if I didn’t have chains. So when it came time for my wife to go to work for her evening shift at Baptist Hospital, I threw a shovel into the back seat and drove her there. The plan was that I would pick her up at 11:30, drive her home and then drive back to the TV station for my shift. It snowed all the way there and back. We had a steady light snow throughout the afternoon that turned into heavy snow around 9 PM. By the time I drove back into town to pick her up, the buildup was higher than I have ever seen snow before in my life. We were already up to 5 or 6 inches.
Pictures Courtesy of thestate.com
By the time I had dropped her off and returned to the TV station, we were in full “battle station” mode. The news department was up to full staff with reporters equipped with two way radios deployed to the major intersections to feed reports of the road conditions back to the newsroom. It was going to be a long night. I never did get any wiring work done that night. Instead I turned to operational duties, keeping he station on into the overnight period while the duty engineer went home to rest. The station initiated our emergency operations plan breaking into network programming with local updates from the news room. Our weather man, Joe Pinner, put in long hours as the weather continued to deteriorate. The snow continued all through the night and into the next day. Finally a little after 3 pm on the next day, 25 hours after it began, the snowy onslaught ended.
But the damage was done, the city lay buried under a blanket of snow, ranging from 14 inches at the airport southwest of town to two feet in Rimini a few miles east of the metropolitan area. There were moderate power outages across the city but the snow was fortunately mostly light and fluffy which spared the power lines. The streets were a different story altogether, they were pretty much impassible. The most striking thing to me was the silence. No cars on the road, no planes in the sky unearthly cold and stillness shrouded the wintery scene.
The next few days were a blur as our shifts expanded at the station to fill out the broadcast schedule because not all the staff could get into the studio to tell the rest of the city to stay home. City government mobilized to get emergency workers to their jobs; they worked with the Army at Ft. Jackson to schedule military vehicles and drivers to pick up doctors, nurses and other critical workers for hospitals, police and other necessary services. We had a few on our staff who could drive in the snow and we worked to get the skeleton crew to and from work.
I will never forget one incident that occurred just before the snow ended. The streets were deserted except for a few vehicles inching their way through the slush. As long as I kept moving I was OK. But if I stopped, there was a better than 50/50 chance that I would have to break out the shovel and dig the snow out from under my tires before I could move again. So I decided that if I approached a red light or a stop sign, I would slow down and look for oncoming traffic. If there was none, I would carefully run the light to keep from getting stuck. As I approached one of the busiest intersections in town, there was no opposing traffic, but there were two policemen trying to push a motorist stuck on the side of the intersection back into the part of the street where cars could move. I could see that they were cold, miserable and exhausted. Just before I arrived, the light turned red for me, the cops stood up, and stared at me with their hands on their hips, as if to dare me to run the light. I decided, what the heck, I would plead my case if they stopped me. So I slowed way down and ran the light. Much to my surprise and delight, they cheered me as I drove past. I guess they were tired from pushing cars to get them going after getting stuck, and were glad that someone was using common sense. Oh MY!