Windy 1978 blizzard was "The Greatest Tragedy in the History of Ohio"

Bil Bowden

It was a dark and stormy night, not unlike Winter Storm Jonas.

Thirty-eight years ago, Ohio was digging out from a blizzard that state governor James Rhodes called the "Greatest tragedy in the history of Ohio".  In the early morning hours of January 26, 1978 a storm blew in off Lake Erie that killed at least 10 people, created two-story high snow drifts and challenged media to cover a story that threw normal coverage practices out the window.

This weekend's storm in York is still a few hours away as this is written, but forecasts are grave, although not as bleak as in 1978.  York can expect up to two feet of snow, wind gusts of 22 mph and 30 degree temperatures. That's what the weather forecasters are telling us now. Snow accumulation could be the main threat here, taking down tree limbs which, of course, snap power lines.

So, this  story is going to be one of those "When I was your age, I walked five miles to school every day, in the snow, and uphill. Yes, even in May," stories. But this is true. It was ugly.

buried car1

Snow was not the biggest killer in Sandusky, Ohio (in summer, the home of Cedar Point and all things fun). The wind was the culprit, although the 12 inches of snow and the cold played major roles in the tragedy.

This storm blew in from the north, unlike the usual weather pattern of west-to-east. The snow belt stories told about northeast Ohio and into Buffalo are all true. Storms pick up all the Lake Erie moisture and dump it on the first land it comes to-- usually Buffalo. Because of its location in northwest Ohio, Sandusky is usually spared.

Ah, but on this day, the north wind swept up all the snow that was falling on the lake and blew it into the road that takes summer tourists to the Point, and then into the city itself and beyond.

Sandusky Register stories told of hurricane-force winds, some at 70 mph. Coupled with a foot of snowfall and bitter temperatures hovering around zero, the wind-- and wind chill-- transformed a mere snow storm into a disaster. One story claimed a drift 30 feet high and another neared a second-story window.

To cover the event, photographers rode with rescue personnel on snowmobiles or in the back of ambulances and fire trucks. The snowmobiles rode over the top of vehicles hidden in the drifts.

Homes along the Cedar Point roads were exquisite, huge, high-priced-- and isolated.  Many houses were owned by physicians who couldn't get out their front door without rescue. There were still hospital patients to be cared for and new patients were admitted. At least one doctor was airlifted to the hospital by helicopter.

It was many days before those houses and the roads leading to them could be cleared. Big front end loaders were hired to dump snow to the roadside--drifts overwhelmed the plows-- and even when schools opened again, the streets were sometimes so narrow and the snow so high that the bus mirrors nearly scraped.

Stories of bravery, self-sacrifice and human kindness were everywhere.  A baby born at home, neighbors gathering at a common fireplace because power failed, houses being opened to a friend whose roof collapsed.  But there will always be the other stories too.

big drift

Six men were trying to get home, but their car was stopped alongside the road. It may have gotten stuck, the driver pulled over because of snow blindness, whatever.  They kept the car running to stay warm, but the wind piled up snow around the car, funneling carbon monoxide inside. All six were found dead the next day. A lone driver's car got stuck and he tried to make it across the field to a farm house only a few hundred yards away. Temperatures were near zero and the wind sucked all the heat out of him. He didn't make it.

A space heater started a farm house fire, but fire fighters and the sobbing homeowners could only watch the house burn when massive snow drifts stopped fire equipment a half mile away.

Cars were bulldozed off the drifted roads, some weren't located until enough snow had melted days later.

From the air, photographers captured a state route 4 parking lot, a mass of empty cars and trucks, most in line with nowhere to go.

It was ugly.

For those of you lucky enough or old enough not to remember that storm, take heed tonight and this weekend. The snow is a problem, but the wind is also a killer.

Be safe. And be prepared.