BOSTON - A behemoth storm packing hurricane-force wind gusts and blizzard conditions swept through the Northeast on Saturday, dumping more than 2 feet of snow on New England and knocking out power to 650,000 homes and businesses.
More than 28 inches of snow had fallen on central Connecticut by early Saturday, and areas of southeastern Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire notched 2 feet or more of snow - with more falling. Airlines scratched more than 5,300 flights through Saturday, and New York City's three major airports and Boston's Logan Airport closed.
The wind-whipped snowstorm mercifully arrived at the start of a weekend, which meant fewer cars on the road and extra time for sanitation crews to clear the mess before commuters in the New York-to-Boston region of roughly 25 million people have to go back to work. But it also could mean a weekend cooped up indoors.
For a group of stranded European business travelers, it meant making the best of downtime in a hotel restaurant Friday night in downtown Boston, where snow blew outside and drifted several inches deep on the sidewalks.
The six Santander bank employees found their flights back to Spain canceled, and they gave up on seeing the city or having dinner out.
"We are not believing it," said Tommaso Memeghini, 29, an Italian who lives in Barcelona. "We were told it may be the biggest snowstorm in the last 20 years."
The National Weather Service says up to 3 feet of snow is expected in Boston, threatening the city's 2003 record of 27.6 inches. A wind gust of 76 mph was recorded at Logan Airport.
In heavily Catholic Boston, the archdiocese urged parishioners to be prudent about attending Sunday Mass and reminded them that, under church law, the obligation "does not apply when there is grave difficulty in fulfilling this obligation."
Halfway through what had been a mild winter across the Northeast, blizzard warnings were posted from parts of New Jersey to Maine. The National Weather Service said Boston could get close to 3 feet of snow by Saturday evening, while most of Rhode Island could receive more than 2 feet, most of it falling overnight Friday into Saturday. Connecticut was bracing for 2 feet, and New York City was expecting as much as 14 inches.
Early snowfall was blamed for a 19-car pileup in Cumberland, Maine, that caused minor injuries. In New York, hundreds of cars began getting stuck on the Long Island Expressway on Friday afternoon at the beginning of the snowstorm and dozens of motorists remained disabled early Saturday as police worked to free them.
About 650,000 customers in the Northeast lost power during the height of the snowstorm, most of them in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant in Plymouth, Mass., lost electricity and shut down Friday night during the storm. Authorities say there's no threat to public safety.
At least four deaths were being blamed on the storm, three in Canada and one in New York. In southern Ontario, an 80-year-old woman collapsed while shoveling her driveway and two men were killed in car crashes. In New York, a 74-year-old man died after being struck by a car in Poughkeepsie; the driver said she lost control in the snowy conditions, police said.
Forecasters said wind gusts exceeding 75 mph could cause more widespread power outages and whip the snow into fearsome drifts. Flooding was expected along coastal areas still recovering from Superstorm Sandy, which hit New York and New Jersey the hardest and is considered Jersey's worst natural disaster.
In Manhattan, streets normally bustling after midnight, were quiet Saturday but for the hum of snow blowers, the scrape of shovels and the laughter from late night revelers who braved the snow.
Bill Tavonallo, 39, said he walked home on purpose from a Manhattan bar to enjoy the snow falling.
"With Sandy, we were scared. But this is wonderful," he said, his glasses crusted with ice. "It's nice to have a reason to slow down."
In Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick enacted a statewide driving ban for the first time since the Blizzard of '78, a ferocious storm that dropped 27 inches of snow, packed hurricane-force winds and claimed dozens of lives.
In New York, Fashion Week, a series of designer showings with some activities held under tents, went on mostly as scheduled, though organizers put on additional crews to deal with the snow and ice, turned up the heat and fortified the tents. The snow did require some wardrobe changes: Designer Michael Kors was forced to arrive at the Project Runway show in Uggs.
For Joe DeMartino, of Fairfield, Conn., being overprepared for the weather was impossible: His wife was expecting their first baby Sunday. He stocked up on gas and food, got firewood ready and was installing a baby seat in the car. The couple also packed for the hospital.
"They say that things should clear up by Sunday. We're hoping that they're right," he said.
Said his wife, Michelle: "It adds an element of excitement."