SC’s ‘Blizzard of ‘73’ memories still vivid

The snowstorm of 1973 started innocently enough, as a smattering of snow falling across the South.

But as skies darkened on Feb. 9, 1973, and a low front out of the Gulf of Mexico mixed with rain off the East Coast, a winter storm like none anyone had ever seen before fell across most all of South Carolina.

Columbia got 15 inches of snow, while places in the Pee Dee received two feet. While some areas in the Upstate got two to five inches, most of the northwest corner of the state was passed by. The snow kept falling for 24 hours and stayed on the ground for a week.

In the Midlands, as the snow began, a seven-car pileup on I-26 over the Broad River and a five-car pileup at Broad River Road and I-20 snarled traffic. Remarkably, no injuries were reported.

Kids were ecstatic about being out of school.

But with very little snow removal equipment, much of the Palmetto State shut down. Traffic ground to a halt along roadways and interstates. About 30,000 motorists became stranded, many climbing over fences along interstates to walk to the nearest house.

National Guard units and volunteers ran countless missions, working from helicopters and all-terrain vehicles.

After a while, food and supplies ran low. In some places, the situation became desperate.

Three Winston-Salem teens who hiked to the Holiday Inn motel in Orangeburg had to have their jeans, frozen solid, cut off. Using their hands, guests helped warm the teens’ feet. The hotel clerk gave them his own room.

Food would have to be airlifted in to many places along the I-95 corridor. Gov. John West would tell a number of those who had hunkered down at a Ramada Inn near Manning that the state of South Carolina “would not let them go hungry.”

Among the many untold stories of the snowstorm of ’73 were the countless acts of compassion and even heroism showed by South Carolinians. Farmers used their tractors to pull drivers out of ditches and off roads. Church members and other volunteers fed or tended to hundreds in emergency shelters. Residents took stranded motorists into their homes.

When it was over, the storm would break longstanding records and claim 14 lives, including eight who died from exposure. Damages and cleanup cost $30 million.

In the years to come, many would recall where they were during the “Blizzard of ’73,” and for awhile – until Hurricane Hugo blew through 16 years later with a brand of wind and fury all its own – the 1973 snowstorm would be known as the “Storm of the Century.”

As Saturday – the 40th anniversary – approaches, we asked readers for their memories. Here are some of them:

“My 13th birthday party was that Friday evening at my home in West Columbia. ... I had about 15 people there for the big day. It started snowing early on, but we truly did not worry because as everyone knows here in Columbia nothing ever really serious becomes of the snow. Well, we went on with our evening with the music cranked up and having a great time. All of a sudden we looked out the window and discovered what had happened, as did my parents. They got on the phone with all the other parents and cleared it with them for their child to spend the night, so we ended up having a huge sleepover in the formal living room that turned into a three-day party.

“Thankfully, we lived right behind the Piggly Wiggly and were able to make grocery runs. My mom was such a champ and cooked three meals a day for all of us. It was great! The parents were finally able to make it over by Monday. I have a feeling they all enjoyed my party more than I did. I will certainly never forget my year of becoming a teenager for as long as I live!”

Laura Wynn Scudder, Columbia

“I was a junior at USC, living in the Columbia Hall dorm. A group of us borrowed large metal pans from the Capstone cafeteria and used them to sled down Barnwell Street into Greene Street for most of that Friday night. Later, I watched the campus fill up with snow from my dorm window and couldn’t resist walking to the Horseshoe. It was so quiet and beautiful – almost surreal.”

Sallie Hook Boggs, Columbia

“I was a freshman at the Citadel, and there was a giant snowball fight between battalions. I tried to go home (to) Batesburg-Leesville the next day and got stuck on I-26, going north, just south of Columbia. Unofficial snow in Charleston: around 10 to 12 inches. We measured.”

Randy Stapp, West Lafayette, Ind.

“I was 17 during the big snow of ’73. I lived on Trenholm Road across from Kathwood Baptist Church. Trenholm was two lanes back then with two- to three-foot deep drainage ditches on each side, completely covered with snow. A friend of mine from Germany had his new four-wheel drive Subaru sedan shipped to Columbia when he moved here. There weren’t many four-wheel drive vehicles around back then and we spent two days pulling dozens of cars out of those ditches!”

Don McMillin, Columbia

“The Florence County Sheriff’s Office ... sent out a plea for anyone with reliable four-wheel drive (vehicles) to give the office a call. My brother had just gotten a Ford Bronco. So we jumped at the chance ...

“Our objective was to make our way up I-20 to the county line. The scene was amazing – 16 inches of snow, with cars completely covered by snow drifts. We managed to make it to some folks in a Cadillac sedan trying to make it back home to Michigan, but they were not going anywhere. So we had to talk them into letting us take them to the sheriff’s office. We saw no other vehicles on the road that night. I was 15 at the time. No school for over a week. Snow everywhere. This is one of my favorite memories of my childhood.”

Mark Atkinson, Abbeville

“My uncle had a funeral service and ran the ambulance service (in Allendale) then. A person from the National Guard requested the use of the stretchers. I accompanied them in their trucks to pick up people and bring them back to the armory in Allendale. We did this from Friday night until Sunday morning. It was quite an experience. We used the stretchers to help people who were disabled. At the armory, they took care of them, fed them, housed them. All this was done by volunteers because, at that time, a lot of the guard couldn’t get back to the armory because of conditions.

Lawrence P. Smith, then 20, who later received an Award of Meritorious Service from Gov. West

The State newspaper’s Bertram Rantin, who grew up in Manning, recounts how his mother, Hessie Rantin, went out to a local grocery store in the middle of the snowfall, to buy baby formula for a family taken in by friends.

“She was one of a lot of people that did things like that, so it’s not just about my mother. I-95 runs through Manning so ... that was just our little bit of service. And that was just an example of the kinds of things that people all over Manning were doing. People were going out and helping people get off the interstate. Lots of people were staying at people’s houses.”

Rantin said snow fell and filled tire tracks, then the new tire tracks, then the newest tire tracks.

“I had seen snow before,” he said. “But not like that.”

“While growing up on Lake Wateree ... at age 11, I remember our electricity being off and, of course, it was cold! My dad hooked up a generator to run the furnace as we all slept in one room along with the gas stove. Dad would have to get up several times during the night to fill the generator with gas. I cannot remember how long the electricity was off as at age 11 it was pretty cool to have no power and a foot of snow.”

Johnny Deal, Camden

“I was 13 years old and attending a school in Lynchburg. I remember it started snowing in the middle of the day. Nothing was more exciting to a kid than the possibility of getting out of school early and a weekend of snow. My cousin, also 13, was at school with me and we begged my mom to let her get ‘snowed in’ for the weekend. Little did we know she would still be at my house a week later. By Sunday, we had two feet of beautiful snow in our three-acre yard.

“We literally had to pack down a snow tunnel out to the barn to feed and water the horses. It was just too deep to walk in every time. But hey, when you are 13, who cares? We made a new snowman every day. We rode make-shift sleds down any little hill we could find.

“Midweek, the food was running low so my parents saddled up the horses and rode them to the little neighborhood store for milk and bread and assorted snacks. All in all, it is one of my fondest memories from childhood – not so much the Saturday make-up days we had to do later in the year, but at the time, a blast!”

Kaye Marsh, Columbia

Longtime Columbia weatherman Jim Gandy, now chief meteorologist at WLTX-TV, said the 1973 storm was a rare occurrence for the Palmetto State. “If you looked at snowstorms prior to that, you don’t find anything of that magnitude in the Southeast.”

A junior studying meteorology at Florida State University in 1973, Gandy said he and a buddy decided to follow the path of the storm in his buddy’s Volkswagen Beetle. They left from Tallahassee, Fla., and got as far as Tifton, Ga., before they had to turn around.

“It was the first storm I ever chased,” he said, laughing.