Winter of 1982 was a snow plower's nightmare

Children make their way through a Belleville alley after a storm dumped up to 18 inches of snow on Belleville the weekend of Jan. 30-31, 1982.
Children make their way through a Belleville alley after a storm dumped up to 18 inches of snow on Belleville the weekend of Jan. 30-31, 1982.

Don Amenn has been plowing state roads for 41 years, so he was on the front lines during one of the worst snowstorms in metro-east history.

The unexpected storm dumped up to 18 inches on Belleville the weekend of Jan. 30-31, 1982, closing schools, businesses and government offices and stranding hundreds of vehicles on treacherous roads.

By Feb. 1, officials were listing Illinois 159 from Belleville to Edwardsville as the only "passable" main road in the metro-east, and Illinois 3 through Cahokia as the only open route to St. Louis.

"There were areas where drifts were 10 to 12 feet high," said Amenn, 61, of Belleville, who is still a highway maintenance worker for the Illinois Department of Transportation. "We had to have special equipment like backhoes, high lifts and graders to clear the roads. We basically just loaded the snow on trucks and hauled it away (instead of plowing it to the side)."

Stranded motorists packed motels or stayed in temporary shelters at fire and police stations, schools, senior centers and truck stops. The roof of a greenhouse at Belleville Area College and an airplane hangar at Bi-State Parks Airport in Cahokia collapsed under heavy snow.

Stores ran out of tire chains, rock salt, snow shovels, milk, bread and eggs. Officials reported no serious accidents or injuries, but three men died of heart attacks, possibly because of storm-related stress caused by walking in deep snow, shoveling or driving in dangerous conditions.

News-Democrat reporter Stephen Pounds gave a first-person account of his harrowing experience on Interstate 55 in the storm. It took 2 1/2 hours to go 60 miles from Springfield to New Douglas and six hours to go 15 miles from New Douglas to Troy.

"Frequently, we sat with the engine running but the heater turned off to avoid an engine stall," Pounds wrote. "You tend to think as a survivalist ... conserving energy, anticipating driving problems and concentrating on staying awake."

One of the News-Democrat's most dramatic storm stories involved Sharon Miller, 36, of Marine, who gave birth to her sixth child in an ambulance on an Interstate 70 exit ramp near Troy.

Edwardsville firefighter Dave Carnaghi and Capt. Dennis Henson were trying to take Miller to Anderson Hospital, but the ambulance got stuck.

"(Miller's) water broke, and we delivered the baby right there in the ambulance," said Carnaghi, noting it was a first for both men. "We did what we had to do. We kept her and the baby warm until we were rescued."

Troy Fire Chief Jim Laughlin helped pull the ambulance to Anderson with a nylon "sling" attached to a highway department snowplow. The healthy baby boy weighed 9 pounds, 6 ounces.

"(Miller's family) moved to Missouri," said Carnaghi, now 67 and retired. "But she used to bring the boy up to the fire department every day on the anniversary until he was 12 or 13 years old."

The National Weather Service has been keeping St. Louis snowfall records since 1884. It shows 24-hour accumulations of 20.4 inches in 1890 and 15.5 inches in 1912, so Belleville may have had similar measurements.

The weather service has been keeping Belleville snowfall records since 1944. The official one-day maximum is 14.8 inches on Jan. 31, 1982, but some areas received up to 18 inches, according to the News-Democrat.

"That's big for any place in Illinois," said State Climatologist Jim Angel. "We've found that after 6 inches, an area has some economic impact (because of delays and closures) and after 8 inches, it really ramps up. Even in Chicago, they would struggle with a 14.8-inch snowstorm."

The season maximum for Belleville snowfall is 36.6 inches during the winter of 1981-82, so the Jan. 31 storm was only part of a very harsh winter.

Belleville had 19 inches of snow on the ground in places Feb. 9, 1982. Highway worker Amenn remembers plowing more than 30 days straight in January and February.

"It seemed like every third or fourth day, it would snow, and some snows were significant enough that it'd take two or three days to clear the roads, and then it'd snow again," Amenn said. "The equipment was going non stop and (the workers), too."

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