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Nation's Capital Moving in Slow Motion : Surprise Snow Batters East; 11 Die

November 12, 1987|LEE MAY | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A surprise autumn snowstorm assaulted the Eastern seaboard Wednesday, closing schools, shutting a major Washington airport and causing at least 11 deaths.

Cold and rain spread through the Deep South, and snow fell from North Carolina to New England, spoiling many Veterans Day observances.

The Washington area, which had enjoyed 70-degree temperatures only two days earlier, was at the center of the storm, buffeted by 20-m.p.h. winds as temperatures plunged into the 20s and snow accumulations exceeded a foot in outlying areas. Most government workers were given the day off because it was Veterans Day, easing the afternoon commuter crush.

"This is the snowiest day ever in November" for Washington, said Robert Oszajca, a forecaster for the National Weather Service. "And it's going to be at least in the top eight" of all time.

Buried Old Record

The 15-inch snowfall buried the old November record of 6.9 inches, set Nov. 30, 1967, and caught residents and weather experts off guard. Throughout the day, forecasters were predicting a few inches, updating their forecasts as the day--and the snow--went on, until, by evening, a total of 16 inches was predicted.

"We weren't anticipating it," said Cpl. Frank Rawson of the Maryland State Police. "This is kind of early. We were just taking a pool on when we were going to get the first snowfall. I picked Dec. 17."

In Canton, Mass., Patricia Foley braced for the storm's arrival, saying that slush and snow were already on the ground there. "We've had a long Indian summer," she said. "After all, it is November."

Throughout the storm area, Veterans Day activities went on.

In New York, freezing rain pelted the parade up 5th Avenue, causing members of the 42nd Infantry Division to shiver in their green camouflage uniforms. American flags blew stiffly in the chill wind, which added to the discomfort as the marchers passed holiday shoppers hurrying into stores. By lunchtime, the sleet had turned to snow.

In Washington, at Arlington Cemetery, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger placed the traditional wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The black granite Vietnam Veterans Memorial, framed in snow, was the scene of an emotional ceremony as Jan C. Scruggs, who spearheaded the campaign to establish the memorial, shouted: "We wouldn't call this off for the snowstorm because they never called off the war when it rained." Hundreds of veterans and relatives of the deceased cheered.

Bob Hope at Scene

Bob Hope agreed that the snow should not deter anyone, saying: "The names on the wall, they saw days a lot tougher than this."

Later, Hope, in a less solemn mood although stranded in the capital overnight, quipped: "I thought I was in Moscow."

Road conditions were poor enough Wednesday night that the Washington Bullets-Philadelphia 76ers game at the Capital Centre was postponed by the National Basketball Association--even though both teams were in town.

The Veterans Day holiday kept many commuters at home, helping road crews.

Nevertheless, countless traffic accidents were logged.

A 44-year-old man was killed in Maryland when he fell 35 feet from an icy bridge railing where he had climbed to avoid being struck by an out-of-control vehicle on an Interstate 70 bridge at the Baltimore-Howard county line, said Howard County authorities.

A Greyhound bus hit another vehicle head-on near Shadwell, Va., on snow-covered Route 231 near Charlottesville, injuring at least 15 people, said Cmdr. J.L. Higgins of the Virginia State Police.

The weather was blamed for the deaths of four people in Virginia, three in Pennsylvania, two in New York state, and one each in Washington, D.C. and Maryland.

Washington's National Airport was closed at 10:30 a.m. for an indefinite period because snow plow operators could not see how to clear the runways, said William Hall, an operations official. Travel was disrupted for thousands in Washington and elsewhere. By 6 p.m., Hall said, the airport was "practically empty."

Dulles International Airport outside Washington was able to continue operations, but with delays.

Amtrak reported that eight or nine of its trains had been delayed north and south of Washington, D.C., from 30 minutes to several hours. Bruce Heard, an Amtrak spokesman in suburban Washington, said the delays were caused by frozen switches in the District of Columbia.

The snow led First Lady Nancy Reagan to cancel a planned trip to New York City to attend a concert at Carnegie Hall by pianist Vladimir Feltsman.

Senate in Session

In Congress, the Senate is scheduled to meet today, though the House will be not be in session for the rest of the week. Thousands of workers in Washington, including congressional staff members, will be returning to work today, making snow removal an urgent problem.

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