A wild northeaster surprised Southern New England yesterday with near-blizzard conditions and a bizarre thunderstorm, closing Logan International Airport, gridlocking thousands of homeward-bound commuters, and dumping more than a foot of snow in some communities.
Lightning struck an airplane as it landed at Logan International Airport, a tractor-trailer jackknifed on Interstate 495 near Wrentham, and school buses filled with children were in accidents in Boston and Braintree. Near hurricane winds whipped through coastal communities and left about 80,000 homes without power in Southeastern Massachusetts.
No injuries were reported, but the storm caught some school superintendents and many commuters and road crews off guard. The storm began mildly in the morning, but in early afternoon snowballed into blustery, whiteout conditions.
Around 3 p.m., Logan International Airport shut down for about two hours because of poor visibility, canceling hundreds of flights. Ferry service was called off when winds in Boston Harbor reached 50 miles per hour. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority truncated service on the E branch of the Green Line because of poor weather conditions and traffic.
Accidents and abandoned cars, as well as downed trees, highway signs, and utility poles, crippled highways and thoroughfares from Cape Cod to Gloucester, as commuters tried to make their way home last night. Portions of routes 128, 3, and 9 were shut down.
'I don't think we've ever seen driving conditions this bad," said Lydia Iantosca, 34, of Dedham, who pulled off Route 9 and holed up at the Chestnut Hill Mall to wait out the storm. 'It was just blinding."
But State Police reported no serious accidents last night as of about 11.
The energetic, fast-moving storm dropped more than a foot of snow in some places, with Northern Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire bearing the brunt of the snowfall, meteorologists said. Snow in those areas fell at a rate of 5 inches per hour at some points. Littleton, Mass., recorded more than 15 inches of snowfall, while Bennington, N.H., got nearly 1 1/2 feet. Cambridge reported 8 inches and Winthrop had recorded 5 inches as of late yesterday afternoon.
Boston, Hartford, Providence, and Worcester recorded record amounts of snow for the date. Logan measured 8.6 inches of snow; Boston Common, 7.5; and Worcester, 12.8 inches.
Forecasters had been predicting 5 to 10 inches of snowfall across the region, but said they did not foresee the sharp drop in air pressure that created what meteorologists call 'thundersnow." A low-pressure system sweeping northward from the mid-Atlantic coast yesterday morning got a boost of low pressure from a system moving east over New York State. Snowflakes provided conductivity, and the result was booming thunder, flashes of lightning, and more snow. Forecasters said the severity of the storm was greater than anticipated.
'We got slammed today," said Eleanor Vallier-Talbot, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Taunton. 'It was crazy."
Winds reached about 60 miles per hour in Wakefield and in Tiverton, R.I., but coastal towns in Massachusetts recorded the most forceful gusts. Winds reached 62 miles per hour in Nantucket, 73 miles per hour in Plymouth, and 75 miles per hour in Chatham.
Hurricane wind speeds start at 75 miles per hour. A storm reaches blizzard status when frequent wind gusts reach 35 miles per hour and visibility shrinks to less than a quarter-mile for three hours or more. The fiercest period of yesterday's onslaught lasted only two hours, according to Walt Drag, another National Weather Service meteorologist.
Gusts felled a large power-transmission line, and tens of thousands of homes were without power last night in Plymouth and New Bedford, as well as on Martha's Vineyard and the Cape, an NStar spokeswoman said.
The power company diverted repair crews from north and west of Boston to the area, and planned to have them working through last night until electricity was restored. 'The worst of the storm blew in all at once," the spokeswoman, Caroline Allen, said. 'It knocked down trees and took power lines with it."
In perhaps the most dramatic storm-related incident, lightning hit Comair Flight 5437, a Canada Air regional flight traveling from Baltimore to Boston, just before it touched down at Logan Airport shortly after 2 p.m., according to Kate Moser, a Comair spokeswoman. Federal Aviation Administration officials said the strike blew off the tip of the airplane's left wing, but Moser said the plane landed safely with three crew members and 35 passengers aboard, most bound for Boston.
Janie Brooks, one of the passengers, said it was a 'lovely flight" before the lightning struck. 'There was a large ball of orange something, very loud and very bright and very bumpy," Brooks told CBS4-TV (Channel 4). 'We were a little scared."
A 52-year-old man was struck from behind by a plow in Peabody while he was walking east on Lowell Street at about 8:50 p.m., according to Peabody police. The man was transported to Massachusetts General Hospital, where he was listed in fair condition last night, Peabody police Lieutenant John McCorry said. The driver of the plow was not cited last night.
School superintendents in parts of Eastern Massachusetts were in a quandary by midday yesterday. The storm had started with fluffy snow in the morning, prompting communities such as Boston, Braintree, Wayland, and Waltham to open school for the day. But when the storm suddenly picked up and superintendents decided to release students early, buses confronted slippery roads and rapidly mounting snow.
In Brookline, Superintendent William Lupini said he thought weather conditions were OK in the morning when he decided to open schools. But he groaned in the afternoon when the sky turned dark, lightning flashed, and snow mounted. School officials rushed to get students out safely. At the town's Lawrence School, plows were called because teachers could not get their cars out of the parking lot. 'It came so quickly," Lupini said. 'I wish I had the information I have now. If I did, maybe I'd have done something different. But that's not possible."
A Boston school bus ferrying high school students home from the South Boston Education Complex collided with another vehicle at the corner of G and 8th streets, according to Jonathan Palumbo, spokesman for Boston public schools. Four students were treated at area hospitals and released. The cause of the accident was unclear. He did not have more details, such as how many students were on the bus.
Earlier in the day, a Braintree school bus carrying 63 kindergartners through fifth-graders skidded off Cedar Cliff Road around 8:30 a.m. The bus wound up on a resident's front lawn. No one was injured. Another bus was called to take the children to school.
In downtown Boston yesterday afternoon, bitter winds whipped down Tremont Street, as tourists towing suitcases fought to keep their balance and as grimacing mothers hustled their children along the snowy sidewalks. Jessica Walker, 29, of Beverly and her mother, Ginger Ferreira of Cambridge, refused to cancel their plans for their yearly Christmas shopping outing. 'This is better than 30 below," Ferreira said.
In North Andover, some saw the storm as a ripe business opportunity. Josh Houde, 15, and his cousin, Billy Woods, 16, launched a snow-shoveling business, papering their neighborhood with fliers early in the day with hopes for tons -- well, hundreds of pounds, anyway -- of business by nightfall.
'We've done it for years here and there, but this year we decided to print up fliers so we can get a regular group of customers," Houde said. The pair collared a younger brother and two cousins to help and planned to charge $20 per driveway and $5 to $10 per sidewalk. 'We're hoping that when the snow stops, we'll make enough money to buy Christmas presents."