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Hagerstown marks 25 years since 1983 blizzard

February 10, 2008|By MARLO BARNHART

Snow had already been falling for several hours when residents of the Tri-State area awoke that Feb. 11 morning 25 years ago.

Feb. 11, 1983, was a Friday, and it was winter after all, but who knew that before the day was over, a one-day record 25 inches of snow would fall in Hagerstown?

"That record stood until 1996," said Greg Keefer, a Hagerstown weather observer who has been keeping track of weather highs and lows for several decades.

Keefer said the two-day 1996 storm deposited 26 inches of snow the first day and nine inches the second day.

But that doesn't diminish the impact the Blizzard of 1983 had on the region. Many who experienced the snowfall have no trouble remembering details.

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Keefer was living in Woodcrest Village in 1983.

"I was measuring every hour," he said. "Snow was coming down at an hourly rate of 3 to 5 inches some of those hours."

Luther "Jay" Grimes was chief of the Williamsport Volunteer Fire Co. back then. The fire hall's proximity to Interstate 81- which was eventually shut down by the storm - led to a crush of stranded motorists needing emergency shelter.

"We had more than 200 people in our fire hall," Grimes said. "Crews stayed all night to take care of whatever needs people had."

Leiter's Catering provided all the food, while Washington County Civil Defense personnel furnished cots, Grimes said. Some of the stranded people stayed two or more days.

"We picked a lot of people up and brought them in," Grimes said. "Don Bowman gave stranded truckers a place to park and we took care of the drivers."

Jeff Ringer and Randy Stouffer were working dispatch at Washington County Fire and Rescue Communications. Their Friday night shift was supposed to be over at midnight but they ended up staying until 8 a.m. Saturday.

Ringer said they agreed to stay to handle the crisis, catching a few winks when they could. But they probably couldn't have left anyway.

"Randy and I took breaks and each time, it became harder and harder to open the door because the snow was piling up," Ringer said.

The telephones rang all night long - maternity patients who needed to get to the hospital, people who abandoned their vehicles and tried to walk to safety, truckers stranded in their rigs.

Chief of the Volunteer Fire Co. of Halfway - then and now - Ringer said Halfway's fire hall and social building were used to house stranded travelers. Food was obtained from a nearby convenience store.

"It was a helpless feeling sometimes," Ringer said. "There were no protocols for a storm like that."

Still, he was proud that all emergency calls were answered that night even though it often took some time.

Fellow dispatcher Robbie Kefauver managed to get home from his shift before the storm reached its full force.

"I went to the Halfway fire station but it got so bad, I went home," he said.

Once at home, Kefauver was put on call for the weekend, but he didn't have to go back in to his dispatching job.

Snowstorm or not, people still needed medical attention during the Blizzard of '83 and Washington County Hospital responded to the crisis.

"There were a lot of our people who stayed at the hospital for days and days," said H.W. Murphy, former hospital president.

Speaking from his retirement home in Florida, Murphy said the hospital cafeteria was kept open around the clock to feed staff members and to give them a place to rest between their duties.

"Spirits were never higher," Murphy said, recalling his pride in the work the hospital employees did during the storm and in its aftermath.

Not all the impact of the blizzard was of the emergency variety. Schools in the area were closed for more than a week after the storm, leaving students to frolic in the snow.

Florists struggled to deliver Valentine's Day flowers in time for the holiday.

And in Williamsport, a silk-screen artist churned out at least 200 "I Survived the Blizzard of 83" T-shirts, just for the occasion, according to published reports.

Underneath, Terry Hartley emblazoned the date of the storm - Feb. 11, 1983 - just in case anyone who lived through it could ever forget.

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