The "Blizzard of '73" surprised everyone.
When snow began coming down on Friday, Feb. 9, 1973, nobody really believed it was going to amount to much, but it turned out to be the worst in the state since weather records began.
By Saturday, Feb. 10, piles of snow were everywhere, roads were covered and traffic was at a standstill. Only emergency vehicles were moving and those were barely making it. By 4 p.m., there was an average of 21 inches on the Orangeburg County landscape. Still a record a today.
Although the deaths of 14 people were attributed to the storm and an estimated 16,000 motorists were stranded in the state, Orangeburg County counted itself lucky with no loss of life.
Law enforcement vehicles were stranded and only the patrol car radios were working. When a serious situation arose, someone needed help etc. -- the Army Reserve and National Guard unit vehicles were called into use.
Motels in every area of the county were jammed full, with all-terrain vehicles bringing in stranded motorists from the interstates. There was a report of rioting and attempts at looting.
The late T&D Publisher Dean B. Livingston wrote: “It was said to be from the Holiday Inn at Santee, which was bursting at its seams with stranded tourists. … A S.C. National Guard helicopter was brought in to transport about 12 National Guardsmen to Santee to quell the reported disturbance. Officer-in-charge Blake Smith of Orangeburg was put in command of the men. Piloting the helicopter were Judson Brodie of St. Matthews and Hinchie A. McGee of Orangeburg.
“A grim-faced Smith briefed the soldiers and helicopter crew. There were no smiles on the faces of anyone as the helicopter flew north above U.S. Highway 301 at an altitude of about 1,000 feet. Down below were hundreds of trucks and cars stranded on U.S. 301. At the intersection with Interstate 26, as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but snow and stranded vehicles going toward Columbia and Charleston. …
“The only persons on the helicopter who did not have a weapon were the two pilots and this writer. I had a camera, pad and pencil and a real fear of what we were flying into. As the helicopter approached the Holiday Inn, a group of about six men came out of the motel and began waving as if they wanted to be rescued. Closer in, the crowd of waves multiplied about 10 fold.
“As the chopper set down on the Holiday Inn snow, a crowd of more than 100 happy people were there to welcome the soldiers with nothing but smiles and words of appreciation. The happiest person out of it all was Smith who, with his soldiers, was expecting the worst and hoping for the best. There was no rioting or any semblance of disorder at the Holiday Inn. In fact, the inn's stranded guests were some of the nicest and most appreciative of South Carolina hospitality of any of the strandees throughout the ordeal.”
It was just one mission for the helicopters, which proved invaluable during the great snowstorm. Their pilots were among the people that the late T&D Staff Writer Joyce W. Milkie praised as heroes of the storm, those who “rallied to help their fellow men.
Forty six years later, practically to the day when he was flying helicopters in the storm, Hinchie Atkinson McGee III, one of those pilots, died on Feb. 12 at age 76.
And while the great snowstorm was one of the most reported aspects of his life, there was more to McGee than flying helicopters for the National Guard.
In addition to being owner/operator of Farmer's Concrete Products, he was very involved with community, beginning with his church, St. Andrew's United Methodist, of which he was a charter member. McGee also was a member of the Numeral Society, the EAA (Orangeburg Chapter), IPTAY, the Elks, Orangeburg Rotary Club/Paul Harris Fellow and the Men's Morning Coffee Club.
For his role in the “Blizzard of ‘73” and much more, Hinchie McGee will be remembered in Orangeburg – and missed by many.