Fall Foliage Snowstorm Struck City
20 30 Years Ago
Editor: We're still a couple days away from the actual anniversary, but parade day seems the appropriate time to dig out this anniversary story. The sky is clear and blue, the air fall crisp, but on Oct. 4 in 1987, a freak snowstorm dumped inches of snow across the North Berkshires and New York Capital Region.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The weekend began mild and sunny, so typical of early fall weather in New England. But Sunday was expected to dawn cooler and wetter for the annual parade.
A rainy Nor'easter that was moving into the region was about to put a damper on the Fall Foliage Parade on that Sunday 20 years ago today. Disappointing but hardly catastrophic — the parade had marched in rain and cold before.
But in the early morning hours, that rainstorm unleashed a freak of nature that would dump up to 2 feet of snow on Berkshire County and eastern New York, knocking down trees, leaving thousands stranded and without power and killing at least one person.
"It was just a terrible time," recalled Mayor John Barrett III, who was to be grand marshal of the parade that year. "I will never forget that day."
Michael Leary was on his way to work for the morning shift at what was then the WMNB-AM radio station. It was 6 a.m. and snow was already falling.
"I got a call from George [Trottier]. He said, 'Don't worry, it's going to turn to rain," said Leary, who is now director of media relations for Berkshire Health Systems. "Then he called back a couple hours later and said it was going to be all snow."
Barrett could see the heavy wet snow clinging to the ground and trees at 7 a.m. He called Thomas King, the executive vice president of the former Northern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, who was in charge of the parade. "I'm telling you we have to cancel this parade," he remembered saying.
Officials had been prepared for rain, and maybe some snow showers. The National Weather Service's report had called for snow accumulation in the higher elevations.
One government meteorologist at the service's Albany (N.Y.) bureau had been watching the approaching storm with some concern. He debated about posting a storm warning — but backed off.
That long-retired forecaster had a tough call to make - after all, the area hadn't been hit by this type of storm in some 130 years, said Warren Snyder, science and operations officer at the Albany bureau.
Snyder, then a "young, journeyman forecaster," recalled how the storm had "just exploded off the coast."
It was essentially snowing in the upper atmosphere, then turning to rain as it fell, he said. The precipitation began falling so heavily that it cooled the air, not normally a significant factor. But in this case, it reached a critical amount: "The melting of the snow cooled the column of air so fast that snow reached the ground."
John Hockridge of the New England Weather Associates at Harriman and West Airport described the phenomenon as a "once-in-a-lifetime event."
"It was extremely out of the ordinary," he said not only for its rapid appearance and timing but for its limited target area.
The storm hit across Northern Berkshire, the Albany Capital District and New York's Catskills region. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Web site lists the storm as one of the more significant of the last century. The earliest measurable snowfall in Albany that day was 6.5 inches; the Catskills got more than 20 inches. Albany was described as "looking like a war zone" and hundreds of thousands were without power for up to two weeks.
Joseph P. Dean was working under his tow truck early Sunday at his Curran Highway garage. First one friend, then another came in talking about the snowfall. Dean didn't really believe them, but he finally went out to check. "There was snow everywhere. That's when the calls starting coming in."
After pulling out a stuck vehicle in Stamford, Vt., he drove back to the city along Beaver Street. Nearing the Union Street intersection, a tree had fallen on the road and several drivers had stopped to look at it, apparently unaware of the danger looming above them. "I looked up and I could see the trees leaning [from the snow] on the side of the hill," he said.
The crack of another tree sent observers scurrying back to their vehicles - clearing the way to get through for a relieved Dean.
By 9 a.m. in North Adams, the parade had been canceled for only the second time in its history. City workers, many gathered at the old Capitol Restaurant on Main Street, were being told to go home while others were being called in to deal with the trees and lines that were starting to come down.
"What made this storm particularly devastating was that there was 6 to 10 inches of snow falling on fully foliated trees," said Snyder.
Barrett would later estimate the number of downed power lines at more than 200 and costs of the cleanup for the city at more than $150,000. Northern Berkshire towns estimated the total damage at $2 million. Some 3,500 acres of silage corn was flattened and unharvested crops were ruined by snow and flooding.
"We absolutely had the severest conditions. We had to close the city down," said the mayor. The most difficult part was trying to warn people to stay in their homes, especially children, because of the hot power lines that were down.
Joseph Tognarelli, was killed Sunday evening when he touched a downed live wire at North Adams State College. His friend, MCLA student David Langone, 19, was severely injured trying to pull Tognarelli away. Tognarelli was pronounced dead at the scene and Langone taken by Life Flight to Massachusetts General Hospital.
"It was awful. We were lucky no else died," said Barrett.
As the city struggled with downed trees and wires, blocked roads and no power, state officials had difficulty comprehending the scope of the disaster. It wasn't snowing on the other side of the Mohawk Trail, in fact, it wasn't snowing south of Pittsfield.
When the state highway foreman for North Berkshire called in all crews and asked to shut down the Mohawk Trail, his skeptical supervisor sent his lieutenant up from Lee to see for himself.
The mayor couldn't get state officials or local utilities to respond. "The electric company didn't see the severity ... It was a complete failure on the state's part. It was very frustrating because they just didn't believe [it was a snowstorm.]"
Stranded tourists made the best of it. Some 70 at Bascom Lodge on top of Mount Greylock helped make meals and set up beds. The staff presented them with certificates saying "I survived the Great Greylock Storm of Oct. 4, 1987," with special honors for their lobby bed making, marathon Trivial Pursuit games, guts, spirit and grace. At the former North Adams Inn, now the Holiday Inn, a parade band entertained visitors.
The Williams Inn made up meals for the Williamstown Police Department next door; dozens in North Adams found shelter at the American Legion.
More than 15,000 customers were estimated to have lost power in the city; Pownal, Vt., had no service by noontime. The following day, some 6,000 in the city, Adams, Clarksburg, Cheshire and Florida were still out. Schools were canceled and families resorted to their summer charcoal and gas grills to cook.
Paul Hopkins remembered standing in the street listening to the snapping of tree limbs - a sound that could be heard for years as weakened trees succumbed to the latest storm. Hopkins was to call the parade on the radio with Johnnie Carrier that day. His first thought on hearing the cancellation was that he had a day off; his second, that this was a public emergency and he had to get to work.
He joined Leary, David Fierro and others at WMNB, and the radio began uninterrupted coverage of the disaster until late into the night, doing on-the-spot news out in the storm. "It was pretty scary," said Leary.
"It was amazing how much information was coming in," said Hopkins, now spokesman for Northern Berkshire Healthcare. "This was a time when the local radio station really pulled through for the community."
The storm wasn't about to deter the Greenbush family from their Florida vacation. They were scheduled to fly out of Worcester airport at 4 p.m. but John Greenbush decided it was time to get out of Dodge after watching the snow pile up outside their Holden Street home. He and his wife, Carol, and children Sarah, 10, and Peter, 8, piled into the family car and headed up the mountain.
The front-wheel drive on their Omni had them passing stranded cars along the way. Then, about 2,000 feet before Dead Man's Curve, a Winnebago was stuck across the road. Greenbush got out and checked the clearance between the Winnebago and the guardrail — just enough room he decided.
"I got back in the car and said, 'We're going for it," Greenbush recalled. They got through — with some minor scraping on the guardrail - and headed over the mountain. They would be the last car to leave the city over Route 2 that day, as they were informed by a state trooper turning traffic around near Charlemont, where it was raining.
They arrived at Friendly's in Greenfield with about 10 inches of snow on their car - "we got a lot of strange looks," said Greenbush. Many of the eatery's customers had apparently stopped on their way to the Fall Foliage Parade. "We told them, 'you're not going to a parade today.'"
The Greenbushes made their flight — four hours early — but the work was just beginning for city crews. The late Arthur J. Kelly, commissioner of public safety, reported later that week that police, fire and wire division workers had put in a total of 249 hours just in overtime. Barrett said he put in at least 30 hours straight.
Once the state realized the urgency of the situation, the Dukakis administration sent in the National Guard other aid. But it was the city crews who dealt with the worst of it, said the mayor. "This was a shining moment in the city because of how everyone responded to the situation."
Twenty years later, the sky is a clear blue and temperature is in the 80s. Another freak storm on the scale of the Oct. 4 one is unlikely because of its rarity and because new technology and weather modeling can predict such phenomenons better. The storm has been used in that research.
Anyone who was here that day remembers where they were or what they were doing - digging their car out, skiing through the streets, driving a plow, huddling in blankets, reading by flashlight, listening to the radio. Then it was over.
"It left as quick as it came," said Hockridge. "It was a freak storm ... it was just out of the ordinary."
Barrett remembers the odd sight of a man standing in the snow at the end of Marion Avenue with a golf bag waiting for a ride. "He was going to play golf. I mean, it didn't snow anywhere else."
For the Greenbushes, the trip to Walt Disney World has been overshadowed by their snowy trek over the Trail.
"Every time October comes around we talk about it," said Greenbush. And with two young grandchildren, "we'll be telling them about it, too."
Some of this information was taken from North Adams Transcript reports at the time. Originally published on Oct. 4, 2007,. at 1:44 p.m.
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