As crystalline snowflakes began descending upon Orangeburg County and the surrounding areas on Feb. 9, 1973 — a Friday — Debra Steffen, like many other teenagers, headed outside to enjoy the rare phenomenon. For Steffen, the great "Blizzard of '73," which dumped more than 25 inches of snow on The T&D Region, would become her own version of "The Perfect Storm."
"That was the best week of my life," said Steffen, formerly Debra Griffin. "Us teenagers, we got out and walked everywhere, we built a great big snowman under the stoplight in Elloree and had a huge snowball fight."
Elsewhere when the snow started falling, H.A. "Hinchee" McGee III was enjoying a birthday supper. At first the flakes weren't a big deal, but then it seemed like they weren't going to stop.
"By the time we finished, we knew we were going to have a lot of snow," McGee said. "I don't think anybody had any idea. It was almost a day before it dawned on me how bad it was."
Francis Faulling, who was an administrator at the then-Orangeburg Regional Hospital, said he remembers the excitement that followed the first snowflakes.
"I don't remember any discussion a bad storm was on the way," he said. "I think this one slipped up on us."
It has been said the snowstorm that began Feb. 9, 1973, is the greatest natural disaster The T&D Region has ever faced. Snow began around noon that day, but by 7 p.m. the situation took a grim turn. Nothing could prepare the region for more than 2 feet of snow and the power outages that followed. There were no snowplows and no emergency plans in place to deal with the sheer amount of snow that fell.
The storm was a test for The T&D Region, one that residents here passed with conviction, determination and cooperation. The storm proved that agencies and citizens could work together to fight through a desperate situation and come out on top.
From Elloree, where according to Steffen, the "whole town came together," to the National Guard, who on their "missions of mercy" saved the lives of an untold number, The T&D Region weathered the disaster and turned a potentially deadly situation into one with a minimal loss of life.
The storm caused an estimated $4 to $5 million in damage and four were reported dead from exposure to the bitter cold that followed. Then, U.S. Highway 301 was the chief north-south route for travelers and tourists and the storm stranded thousands of them. Interstate 26 endured a similar fate. Hundreds of National Guardsmen and volunteers worked through the weekend bringing motorists to emergency shelters.
Orangeburg's First Baptist Church took in approximately 800 strangers; St. Andrews Methodist Church accommodated about 275; Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School about 800. At the intersection of 301 and 26, about seven miles from Orangeburg, as far as the eye could see, there were abandoned trucks and automobiles in all four directions.
Choppers and tractors
The National Guard played a key role in escorting citizens to safety, in particular, getting patients to the hospital when ambulances couldn't. McGee, who was trained as a helicopter pilot with the 51st aviation unit at McEntire Air National Guard Base near Columbia, flew dozens of rescue missions to outlying areas.
"We picked up people that had heart attacks; one man had been run over by a tractor; one lady had been burned and had been in the house for six hours," McGee said, recalling some of the worst cases. "The only vehicles that could actually move were small tractors and helicopters. We spent about three days wherever we were needed, around local areas — St. George, St. Matthews and Orangeburg."
McGee's chopper was a Huey UH-1, which can carry a crew of 12 and 3,000 pounds of equipment — in this case, containers of oxygen and medical supplies. When escorting patients to the Orangeburg hospital, formerly located on Carolina Avenue, McGee would land the chopper in the field near what is now Clark Middle School and four-wheel-drive vehicles would "beat a path" up to the hospital with the patients.
"Some of the real heroes were the farmers with their tractors and their little wagons," McGee said. "They went up and down the interstate and got people and brought them into their houses. If it hadn't been for them, we'd have had some real tragedies."
Three decades later, when McGee reflects on the 1973 snow, one thought lingers in his mind: "Being sure I had enough fuel to save people's lives."
Keeping the hospital running to accommodate patients was a priority of Faulling, who was then assistant administrator in charge of buildings, grounds and support services.
"Up until that time, we had never failed to be able to get around on our own," Faulling said. "We got hold to the National Guard, and they were the only things moving at the time."
Throughout the disaster, Faulling said hospital employees always maintained their allegiance to helping others.
"You never had to ask anybody twice; they got in and did what they had to do," Faulling said.
"We had several people that were killed during that snowstorm in the county; those were some sad times," he said. "The first thing I think about now is how people just got together and did what they had to do and nobody fussed."
From Branchville to Neeses
Even the railways were jammed by the snow. Larry Hendricks of Branchville, a conductor on the local Southern Railroad line that ran between Charleston and Columbia, said crews couldn't get to their jobs during the storm.
"They couldn't throw any switches or do anything. They just had to wait until the rails were clean and they could run a train if they could get the crew to the jobs," Hendricks said. "One of the locomotives in Columbia came out the next day and when he came through here, he was shoving snow halfway up the engine."
Hendricks and his wife, Joe Ann, joined a half-dozen others at the high school to make food for more than 100 stranded motorists. Downtown Branchville resembled a ghost town and when vehicles tried to move on the snow-covered roads, they often struck fire hydrants.
"We had water shooting up like ice sculptures because they'd break off fire hydrants when they ran over them," Joe Ann said. "We had just never seen that much. I remember trying to walk uptown in waist-deep snow. You hurt all over from pulling and trying to get through it. I remember us laughing thinking it was fun doing it."
In Neeses, a young mother of three faced the harrowing possibility of running out of food. Sonja Gleaton, now a staff writer at The Times and Democrat, said she relied on faith to venture into town on an old tractor to purchase bread, milk and other essentials for her children.
Gleaton's husband Kenneth, an SCE&G employee, had been called out of town to aid in the crisis. She was well prepared for any emergency, with plenty of firewood and a battery-operated radio, but the storm left more snow than expected, and supplies were getting low. It was her son Michael who suggested she use the tractor.
"The store was only a mile from our house, maybe less," Gleaton said. "We always had a garden in the backyard and (her husband) taught me how to drive a tractor."
With her son in her lap to "keep my morale up," Gleaton set off into the icy land while recalling a story from the Bible, Chapter 14 from the Gospel of Matthew, to give her inspiration. The story details the disciple Peter, who was able to walk on water as long as he had faith in Jesus.
"If I had given in to my fears that stormy day and not trusted in God and not believed in myself, I would never have gone out in the snow," Gleaton said. "The needs of my family would have gone unmet, and that doubt and fear could have planted itself in my mind and festered."
The Times and Democrat wasn't immune to the effects of the storm, and then-publisher Dean Livingston had one challenge after another with which to contend. Still, the newspaper did not miss producing an edition, even if that meant carriers had to venture out on foot in the slush to deliver them.
"That period was very frustrating for us at The T&D. We lost power for just a short period of time. We had no problem producing and printing the newspaper. But it was a nightmare getting the papers delivered," Livingston said. "City routes were delivered by carriers walking on foot. We were able to come up with some four-wheel-drive vehicles to get papers to some outlying carriers."
The National Guard trucks helped bring T&D employees back and forth from home to work.
"There would have been many deaths in the Orangeburg area had not it been for the Orangeburg-based National Guard transportation unit. The helicopters were a salvation also," Livingston said.
Today, such a storm wouldn't have the impact it did 30 years ago, said Orangeburg County Emergency Services Director John Smith. Weather prediction has improved exponentially and the communication network is much improved.
"We didn't have any of the systems in place that we have now," said Smith, who was a college student when the 1973 storm struck. "We have plans to utilize four-wheel drive vehicles, better shelter plans and we can better get the word out to people. We have much quicker access to National Guard resources and we have instantaneous communications with a much better communication system."
Smith said current radios have the ability to communicate with both county and state officials. There is also an agreement in place with the S.C. Department of Transportation for road-clearing services.
"We actually sign an agreement with them every year," Smith said. "Motorgraders are pressed into service to go ahead and start getting the critical roads clear. "
By Feb. 13, 1973, as the sun returned and the snow began melting, the nightmare was over for most residents of the region. For those lucky enough to avoid tragedy during the 1973 storm, the magic of the snow left a lasting impression.
"I can't wait for it to happen again, and I'll be 46 next month," Steffen said. "It wasn't enough for me. I grew up here, but I have just always loved snow. I'm just sorry South Carolina wasn't prepared for it."
"Except for those who got stranded, everybody from 2 years old to 90 enjoyed that snow," she said.