Metro

‘Three days of hell’ — Scars of Blizzard of ’78 linger, 40 years later

Vehicles were snowbound on Route 128 in the aftermath of a massive blizzard on Feb. 8, 1978.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Vehicles were snowbound on Route 128 in the aftermath of a massive blizzard on Feb. 8, 1978.

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Nothing was spared.

The Blizzard of ’78 wreaked havoc on Eastern Massachusetts, wrecking houses and cars, sinking boats, and stranding thousands of commuters on the highway, including more than a dozen people who died in their vehicles.

Forty years later, those who lived through the storm have vivid memories of the chaos that enveloped the region for several days in February.

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“We never stopped going from different rescues and evacuations,” said Gene Doherty, who was a young Revere firefighter at the time of the storm. “It was three days of hell.”

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Doherty, who retired as Revere fire chief in 2016, recalled frantically pulling people out of flooded areas in and around the Beachmont section of the city, an area that was devastated by high winds and rising sea levels while it was blanketed by snow.

At one point, he said, he and a co-worker were nearly swept away.

Autos were submerged on Winthrop Parkway in Revere after the storm.
Bill Ryerson/Globe Staff
Autos were submerged on Winthrop Parkway in Revere after the storm.

“The water was surging so hard that we had to hold on to a chain-link fence,” Doherty said. “We were out straight. We were saying our prayers. Another guy came back with a length of rope to pull us onto a porch. . . . It was amazing.”

Snow began falling in the region on the morning of Monday, Feb. 6, 1978, following winter storm and heavy snow watches issued a day earlier, according to the National Weather Service. Precipitation rates reached 2 inches per hour by midday on Monday.

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When the snow relented some 32 hours later, 99 lives were lost in New England, including 73 in Massachusetts, the weather service said. More than 27 inches of snow was recorded in Boston, and totals in parts of the region reached 38 inches. One area in Lincoln, R.I., recorded 55 inches.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff
Retired fire chief Gene Doherty walked by a jetty near Winthrop Parkway.

The wind piled snowdrifts as high as 27 feet, according to the weather service.

Doherty said waves crashed through the windows of his own home, while his wife and baby were inside. He resorted to chopping up furniture for kindling to warm the house while the power was out.

“It’s hard to believe what transpired,” he said.

The Globe ran a stark dispatch from his city in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

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“In Revere, the Beachmont neighborhood is gone, and downtown looks like the set of a war movie,” the newspaper reported, adding that one-third of the city’s land area, including roughly 2,000 homes, was submerged in several feet of water.

Seawalls washed away, removing a protective barrier for scores of houses located along the beach. Entire homes were leveled, forcing about 3,000 people to take shelter at Revere High School that week.

Hull was “most especially” hit by the flooding when the storm stalled off the coast, the weather service said.

Flooded streets in Hull on Feb. 9, 1978.
Ed Jenner/Globe Staff
Flooded streets in Hull on Feb. 9, 1978.

“This allowed the very strong northeast winds to build very high seas which crashed ashore,” the statement said. “This combined with astronomical high tides to cause some of the worst coastal flooding ever recorded.”

The governor, Michael S. Dukakis, told reporters at a briefing after the storm that coastal flooding, rather than snow, was to blame for the most significant damage in Revere, Hull, Scituate, and the Houghs Neck section of Quincy.

“Houses have been washed out to sea, and some are tilting into the sea,” Dukakis said. “And one place in Scituate looked like a great pile of scrap lumber which used to be homes.”

Tony Morgan, 78, lived in a three-family home on Jones Road in Revere and sprang into action as water quickly overwhelmed the basement.

“We had a pump going day and night for four days,” Morgan said. “Cars were the biggest problem. They got filled with salt water,” rendering them inoperable.

OPS photo by david L. ryan Feb 10 1978 At her house in Scituate Mrs. Joseph Conley leans on her bathroom utility as she leaves her home with her is Mrs. Edward Dailey of Scituate with whom she is now staying. disasters coastal Scituate / bw / blizzard of 1978 / blizzard78
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Mrs. Joseph Conley leaned on the only remaining fixture in her destroyed house in Scituate as she left with Mrs. Edward Dailey, who she was staying with.

Meanwhile, he said, the Coast Guard and then-Mayor George V. Colella rode down flooded streets in boats, offering rides to people who were trapped.

“It was quite a storm,” Morgan said.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff
Tony Morgan at the home he owned on Jones Road in Revere, which flooded during the storm.

Colella died in 2010. His daughter, Jennifer Martelli, said in a phone interview this week that he was consumed by the relief effort after the storm hit.

“He was just not home the whole time,” Martelli said. “I remember my phone ringing off the hook at my house. My mother was losing her mind.”

Her father, she said, bonded with US Senator Ed Markey, then a young congressman, whom Colella credited with helping to bring federal troops to the storm-ravaged city.

“I’m not exaggerating this, he wasn’t home,” Martelli said of her father during the storm and subsequent cleanup. “He was out on the boat. . . . I will say this: he loved this kind of stuff. He loved interacting with the state and federal officials” to help the city.

Army personnel from Fort Devens were stuck in the slush after trying to rescue a couple in their home on a flooded and frozen street in Revere.
Bill Ryerson/Globe Staff
Army personnel from Fort Devens were stuck in the slush after trying to rescue a couple in their home on a flooded and frozen street in Revere.

Elsewhere, highways became littered with trapped vehicles and their terrified, freezing occupants.

When the storm rolled into the eastern part of the state, people left work early in the hopes of getting home safely. But about 3,500 vehicles became stuck in snowdrifts along Route 128, and 14 people died from carbon monoxide poisoning as they huddled for warmth in their cars.

“It was shocking,” John Carroll, 89, the state public works commissioner at the time of the blizzard, said of the surreal scene on the highway. His team worked feverishly to free up cars until Friday, when the road was finally cleared.

Crews, he said, cleared snow from long stretches of the highway ahead of the gridlock and towed cars to the freshly plowed areas, allowing drivers to reclaim their vehicles.

“They knew where they were,” Carroll said. “It was funny, flying over the state. We flew a lot. You could look down and nothing was moving. You didn’t know, if you just came from Mars or something, you didn’t know whether it was six inches of snow or four feet. It was just white. Nobody was moving.”

He also recalled heading to the Massachusetts Turnpike from his Nashua Street office that Tuesday morning and seeing a man lying drunk outside. The public works team brought the man indoors to safety.

“If we hadn’t spotted him and stopped our car, gotten out of our car, he would have been frozen like a rock,” Carroll said. “Nobody would have seen him. There were a lot of stories like that.”

Kurt Schwartz, director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said in a telephone interview that first responders and the public are now much better prepared to deal with a storm on the scale of the ’78 blizzard.

Military equipment cleared snow from the southbound lane of Route 128 between Highland Avenue and Great Plain Avenue in Needham on Feb. 9, 1978. Vehicles already pulled from the snow lined the northbound lane.
John Blanding/Globe Staff
Military equipment cleared snow from the southbound lane of Route 128 between Highland Avenue and Great Plain Avenue in Needham on Feb. 9, 1978. Vehicles already pulled from the snow lined the northbound lane.

“I can say with a very high level of confidence that were the Blizzard of ’78 to be duplicated this winter . . . the impact on the Commonwealth would be substantially different,” he said.

For one thing, Schwartz said, forecasting technology has greatly improved, giving officials more time to get ready for extreme weather before it hits.

“In 2013, when we saw a massive blizzard heading for Massachusetts, [then-Governor Deval Patrick] declared a statewide travel ban, so that we didn’t have people on the roads trapped,” Schwartz said, adding that Governor Charlie Baker employed the same strategy in 2015.

“We’ve been very proactive looking for ways to protect the public,” Schwartz said.

Donald Roy, 74, stopped in for a coffee at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Revere this week and recalled shoveling snow off his 52-foot boat docked in Charlestown during the ’78 blizzard, in a desperate attempt to keep it afloat.

He barely managed to salvage the vessel as wind gusts reached 80 miles per hour. Others weren’t so fortunate.

“I kept shoveling and shoveling and shoveling,” Roy said. “Boats were sinking everywhere.”

The blizzard, he said, remains etched in his memory.

“Anybody who lived through it will never forget it,” he said.

Rocco Qualtieri, 63, said his East Boston street was dotted with flags after the storm to mark the places where cars were located under the snow, so plows wouldn’t damage them. Some people, he said, even fashioned makeshift garages out of snowbanks.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Qualtieri said. “And I hope I never see it again.”

A woman walked through the snow and water on Dolphin Avenue in Revere after the blizzard.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
A woman walked through the snow and water on Dolphin Avenue in Revere after the blizzard.

Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.