National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

The following is a personal account provided to the National Weather Service Wilmington office by Patricia Caponi who traveled with her husband through South Carolina during the record snowstorm of February 9 through 11, 1973.  This story has not been edited for content or length.



It was a bright sunny day in February when we left for Florida.  We were thinking of all the things we would do and I even made a plan for places we would go.  We decided we would spend a night or two at my aunt’s house in Clermont and this would save us money on motels bills.  Our car, a 1965 Dodge station wagon was in pretty good shape. The starter was a little tricky and it had snow tires on the car. We decided it would be too expensive to buy regular tires so we left the snow tires on.  My husband instructed me about what to do if we had a blowout while I was driving because snow tires heat up more than regular tires on a long ride and are more susceptible to blowouts.

We stopped in Brooklyn to get a map of how to get to my Aunt’s house in Florida.  Also we had to pick up a large bug light that kills bugs for a square acre around.  I took up half of the back of the station wagon.  It took us 2 hours to get into Brooklyn to my Aunt’s northern house and then out of the city. The place is a jungle.

Now we are on our way.  It was 3 pm when we got on the New Jersey Turnpike. From then on it was easy riding down I-95 until we got to the southern part of North Carolina.

That is when it started to snow.  I didn’t think too much of it because it does not snow much down there and it didn’t snow much in New York all winter.  Anyway nothing you could talk about. 

It kept snowing and the winds got stronger.  The windshield wipers were not doing too good of a job.  I was a bit scary when the snow got to be a couple of inches and we had to slow down while the trucks were still speeding by us.  We passed a three car accident which luckily happened right across from a gas station.  The windshield wipers were getting coated with ice and weren’t clearing the windshield.  We pulled into a gas station and bought a new pair of windshield wipers.  They worked beautifully for the first fifteen minutes.  Then the one on the driver’s side started to freeze up.  My husband decided it was time we stopped and rested.  We ended up sleeping in the car for two hours in a closed gas station in South Carolina.  Where it was I couldn’t tell you because I wasn’t much interested in the name of the town. I was getting more and more frightened.

We woke up at 6:30 and decided to get back on I-95.  Again the windshield wipers began to freeze up.  My side of the windshield was pretty clear but my husband’s side was really bad.  He could hardly see.  If you have driven on I-95 you know there are ditches on each side of the road.  My husband was driving dangerously close to the ditch on the right side.  I told him to move over but then he started to drive toward the ditch on the left side.  I yelled for him to move over but he misunderstood me and moved closer to the ditch.  I had to use my hands to show him he must move to the right, yelling “move this way”.

Finally he decided to get off at the next exit.  His visibility was almost nothing and mine was starting to get very bad.  We got on a road that looked like we were in the middle of nowhere.  There were a couple of vehicles in front of us.  One of them was a snow plow.  He moved some of the snow but he left a lot of snow too.  Someone in front of us got stuck and we had to wait a half hour before they could get the car out of the way.

We asked what main rode was up ahead and was told Route 301.  It seemed like an eternity before we finally got to it.  All of a sudden the clouds lit up pink: pink lightning.  It was scary but pretty.  It wasn’t enough that we got caught in a snowstorm but it turned out it was also a thunderstorm.  Another flash of pink and I was getting jittery. 

Once on Rt. 301 I relaxed very slightly and I told my husband to find a motel.  He agreed only because he was tired.  He didn‘t want to be defeated by the storm but his body just couldn’t take any more.  At 9:00 am Saturday we pulled up to a Holiday Inn in Florence, South Carolina. We figured we would get to Florida by Sunday, the latest.  We realized we could have been in Florida by noon Saturday if we hadn’t been hit the by the storm.  This depressed us a little, but we gladly climbed into our beds and slept till about 1:00 pm that afternoon 

Later we went down to the restaurant but they told us we had an hour and a half wait for our food because no one had showed up for work that morning. There were only two waitresses, no busboys and maybe two cooks.  .  It was a good thing I had made sandwiches before we left on the trip. We decided to have a cup of coffee and I went to get some of our sandwiches. That was all we had to eat for 26 hours.  My husband went into the bar.  The band that was staying in the motel doubled as busboys and their wives waited tables.  Finally they told us there would be a buffet supper at 5:00. I went to my room to clean up and get dressed for dinner.  I came down at suppertime and dragged my husband out of the bar. We sat down to eat but the food was terrible.  Even so it felt good to have some hot food.  After dinner we went back to the room.  The band started at 9:00 and I decided to go down to the cocktail lounge.  Then I found out that they only serve beer because they were not allowed to serve booze.  You have to buy your own and bring it in a paper bag.  They gave us the mixers.  They were also allowed to serve wine but there were no corkscrews in the place. That was the end of that.

We met a man named T-Bone in the cocktail lounge.  He offered us mixed drinks. He brought in a few bottles of booze.  I was satisfied with the beer (ugh).  The band wasn’t great but they were not too bad.  We danced quite a bit which kept me from getting drunk.  It only takes a couple of beers to get me tipsy.  Of course, then too, I only had one beer.  We went back to our room at midnight. 

A bright sunshiny new day.  Today we will make it to Florida. Or so I thought.  Sunday started out to be a hopeful day.  We thought we could make it to Florida by night.  After breakfast we packed and put everything in the car.  Someone had rode down the middle of the parking lot but no one had shoveled the parking lot.  Except for the two tire tracks the lot was virgin territory.  Talk about the trouble you have getting out of a parking lot at a shopping center during Christmas rush.  It took us a half hour just to pull three feet out into those two tire tracks.  But once we got into them we slowly got out of the lot.  Thank God we kept the snow tires on.  But God only knew how we would have to use them.  At first we decided to take Rt. 301 out of South Carolina, but my husband was impatient and decided to try I-95 again.  We followed the signs through snow covered streets.  The roads were used by trucks so it wasn’t too bad.  Finally we got to the entrance ramp to the highway.  We stopped and perused the situation.  The ramp was hidden under 20 inches of untouched snow with 5 cars and a truck stuck in the middle of it.  Well that was the end of that and we took Rt. 76 going toward Sumter.  Feeling that we got through the worst of it we decided we would take the detour to Sumter and then go around to Rt. 15 to Summerton which would take us into Georgia.  We couldn’t turn around because the road was one car wide.  We road along about 50 feet and stopped behind a black family from New York.  He was running back and forth to the gas station to put gas in his car.  There was no road into the gas station.  We didn’t get far once he started up because he did not have snow tires.  His car kept slipping and sliding and getting nowhere.  We pushed him.  He would go a ways and then just come to a stop.   Snow kept building up under the front of his car.  Finally after getting him going about 4 or 5 times he realized his muffler fell down and packing the snow in front of him. My husband and two young men who were behind us and heading for Florida helped him remove the muffler.  We were moving again.

We caught up to a Pinto station wagon who was stuck and we were able to get him free.  We then pulled into a town and there were a lot of cars just standing there.  The Pinto went around them and kept trying to go but the snow was too deep and he couldn’t get through. 

All the men in our caravan decided that we could go first because we had a big car with snow tires and we could plow down the snow for them.  We did.  Things went well until we pulled up to a guy in a white station wagon.  He kept getting stuck every 20 or 30 feet.  It got to the point that everyone was getting tired of pushing his car.  We all apologized to him and went around him.  We had to do that or spend the rest of the day pushing him.  We started to go along but every once in a while we would come up to someone who was stuck and we had to push the car out.  All this time we only passed two small towns.  They could not offer us anything except a room but we decided to keep moving.  We met some guys trying to get back to their base. They got stuck and we tried to help them but it was impossible.

As we were moving southwest toward Sumter, we noticed the snow was getting deeper.  Tractors and trucks patted down the snow but this left the hump in the middle of the road.  It was high and we were having a hard time pushing through.  We got to a bridge and the black family who had gotten behind us, got stuck.  My husband decided to keep going because if we stopped we would get stuck.  Here by the bridge, we picked up a man walking.  He smelled awful and we realized he was homeless.  We drove him for a while and then let him out. We also came upon and truck full of cattle.  The cows were scared and making a lot of noise. We kept going until we were 10 miles outside of Sumter.  We got stuck in a big mud hole.  A man in a fire truck said he would come back and help us as soon as he could turn his truck around.  Which meant he had to go back into the town we just passed.  There was no other way.  We used my husband’s jacket, the rubber mat from the front floor of the car and a chain to shove under the wheel when it was jacked up.  But the transmission seemed like it would not respond. It still would be in drive when put into neutral.  This fixed itself after a while.  We threw the jack in the car and revved up in drive and pulled out of the hole just as the fire truck came back.  Again, we were rolling along for a while in back of the truck. Two miles outside of Sumter we met up with a traffic jam and a large mud hole.  We watched the truck go through but we waited.  It was a bad hole.  A large tractor came and beat down another road on the opposite side of the mud hole but this did nothing for us.  We still had to go through it.  Well, we got halfway through it.  This time we were really stuck, deep and impossible.  A small tractor came by and everyone asked if he could pull us out so they could go.  He got us out after a lot of tugging and we gave him $5.00 for the help.  It was worth it.

 We got into Sumter around 6 pm.  Now Florence to Sumter is about 35 miles.  It took us nine hours to go that far.  We met a lot of nice people from New York and many other parts of the US in those 35 miles.  We did not meet many people from South Carolina though.  My husband decided to keep going because we had heard on the radio that all motels were filled.  We found route 15 and again got stuck on the entrance ramp.  This time it was on ice.  A black man walking down the street and a man who pulled behind us helped us.  We got out but the snow was so deep, it stopped us again and we could not move.  A camper bus came up behind us and went around us pushing down the snow.  We could then move.  We went about 4 blocks and came upon a stuck car.  The bus got stuck too, but he got out long before we did.  In a little while there were cars pulling up in back of us but no one could move because the car in front of us blocked all of us.  Everyone pitched in and tried to get going but we were really stuck.  A tractor came by and made a road parallel to ours.  Some young men helped some girls get on the road and they got out.  My husband finally was able to get us out of there and we rode over to a truck stop.  We got gas and ate but there wasn’t any way we could get out of the truck stop because we heard the road further on was blocked by jackknifed trucks. We ended up sleeping in the car overnight.  There was about 30 other cars and about 20 trucks in the truck stop running the engines to keep warm overnight.  The carbon monoxide was getting pretty bad and you would get a good dose when you opened the window

Next morning came and we had breakfast and decided to get going. But we had to dig ourselves out. As we sat in the car waiting I drew a picture of a huge tree that was across the road from us. My husband went to a store down the road and bought a shovel and boots.  About 1pm in the afternoon we were finally able to get out of the truck stop.  We got in line with an endless caravan of trucks.  We rode very slowly and stopped many times because every once in a while a truck would jackknife and it would take about an hour to get it out of the way.  At just about twilight some trucks up ahead got stuck.  We were surrounded by cotton fields and there was a house back from the road down a ways from us.  We sat and waited.  My husband got friendly with the truck driver in back of us and people in another car in the caravan.  They talked and drank beer waiting to get started again.  We sat in the car as the sun set.  All of a sudden the trucks started sounding their horns.  There was a slight echo to them.  We could hear them from far away and near.  It was like a haunting symphony.  It was beautiful.  Finally when it got dark the trucks started to move.  A truck about 4 trucks down got stuck.  He went to the house and knocked on the door.  The black people at first would not answer.  Finally they did and they helped the truck driver get his truck going.  He gave them a 50lb sack of potatoes.  We moved along slowly, stopping and going.  The truck behind us broke down and another one took its place behind us.  After ten hours of this we drove into Summerton, which is about 20 miles from Sumter. We looked for a place to sleep.  A cop stopped us and told us we could sleep at the Town Hall.  We would have but we found a little motel that had some vacancies.  The lady that ran it was a real screwball and the place was run down but it was a place to stay.

Next day we headed into Georgia and arrived in Florida that day.