'78: The mother of all blizzards
Countless Hoosiers survied harrowing ordeals as a monster storm killed 11 and paralyzed a state
By Will Higgins
Thirty years ago today, Dean Kruse thought he was a goner.
He and three friends, driving home to Fort Wayne, found themselves mired in a snowbank along I-69. Leaving the car in those horrific conditions would have been suicide. Staying inside seemed equally perilous. The car was quickly buried in snow, trapping Kruse and his friends.
The engine failed, leaving them without heat.
The future looked bleak, but the four proved resilient. They ate snow to stay hydrated. To stay warm, they sang.
Kruse's is one of the many stories that emerged from what became known as "The Great Blizzard of '78."
It sounds archaic, The Great Blizzard of '78, but probably everything you've heard about it was true.
It was a three-day affair, the first snow coming at 5 p.m. Jan. 25, a Wednesday. Fifteen inches would fall, on top of 5 already on the ground.
The storm was more than just snowfall. It was wind: 55 mph gusts out of the northwest. Snowdrifts were 10 feet deep. The wind chill index reached minus 51.
In Indiana, 11 people died.
"Indianapolis closed yesterday," said a story in The Indianapolis Star.
There was some looting, but the city pulled together. At hotels, managers served food, and guests made their own beds. Car dealerships lent four-wheel drive vehicles to emergency workers. The roughly 300 people stranded at Indianapolis International Airport were "one big happy family," a police officer said.
And Dean Kruse survived to tell his story.
Desperate days and nights
Editor's note: The Fort Wayne News Sentinel asked readers to send in their memories of the Blizzard of 1978. This harrowing account was submitted by Dean Kruse of Kruse International in Auburn, which draws nationwide interest for its car auctions. Kruse writes for the first time about being stranded during the blizzard and his rescue by the National Guard.
The evening of the '78 blizzard, I had left the Fort Wayne airport and landed in Indianapolis to connect to a flight to Dallas. We boarded our Dallas flight, the pilot pulled out on the runway and announced the snow was too deep to take off; and with more snow coming, he had to turn back to the terminal. Thinking I would catch any flight out of Indy south, I quickly checked the departure board and every flight was canceled and the airport was closed. The weather report was bad.
I bumped into a friend of mine, Sheryl Swartz from Decatur, who was headed for Florida. I said, "Sheryl, if it is getting bad, why don't we rent a car and go home and sit out the storm." All cars had been rented but one, a four-door sedan from National. We took it.
As we headed to the rental car, we bumped into Jim Stovell and his wife. When they found out we were headed for the Fort Wayne airport, where all our cars were parked, they said they wanted to go along.
After we were on I-465 North about five minutes, we realized we were doing the wrong thing. The snow was deep and getting deeper. The temperature (the radio said) was 46 below zero with the chill factor, and the wind was blowing so strong we had to fight the car from blowing sideways.
We decided to get off at the first exit. To our surprise, we could not get off. Each exit was jammed full of cars and trucks that were jackknifed and stranded. We could not get off 465. We kept going slower and slower, thinking we had to stay in the car and get off the interstate. We made it to I-69, thinking it might be plowed. It was not.
Finally, after passing the Fishers exit, so much snow was packed under our car, the fan belt broke. We lost our heater. Shortly thereafter, the snow was so deep we could not move at all. Jim said he would try to push open the car door and get his suitcase out of the trunk for some warm clothes. It took him a while to push back the snow to get the door open. He ran in nearly waist-deep snow to the trunk and back to the car. In that short time, he got frostbite. It was bad for his toes and fingertips, we found out later.
Shortly, we noticed our car was going to be covered up with snow. He had gotten his wife's suitcase. We took a pair of her red slacks and put the top waistband in the window with the legs flapping in the wind like a flag. Our car was starting to be almost entirely covered with snow.
From time to time, we checked the radio to get reports. The radio said it was the worst storm in Indiana history. We started talking about freezing to death. We decided we were desperate. So we got a tin soap holder from the suitcase and tried to burn a fire in it. We cut up pieces of seat belts, pieces of seat covers, pieces of headliner; nothing would burn. We had one book of matches.
I crossed my legs and sat on my feet so they would not freeze. We sang "99 bottles of beer on the wall" because it brought up the temperature. Finally, Sheryl found a bottle of hairdressing. After some thought, we cut up our shoelaces and dipped them into the hair oil. To our surprise, it burned like a candle and brought up the temperature in the car. We took a magazine, tore it up and lined the windows with the pages for insulation to preserve the heat. Jim and his wife took turns in the back seat lying on top of each other to keep warm.
The strong winds were drifting the snow onto the top of the car. It was very cold, but our shoestrings were still working.
The next day about noon, we heard pounding on the roof of our car. They yelled if anyone was in the car. We yelled back; they kept pounding. It was obvious they did not hear us, so we pounded back. It sounded like they said they would get help. By 10 p.m. that night, our second night, we were about to give up.
We started to hear noises like cars or trucks were traveling on the highway. Of course, we found out later it was just sounds of the wind fooling us. Little did we know the snow had drifted to 10 and 20 feet high in sections of the highway.
We were getting in bad shape. We had rolled one window a few inches and ate snow for water. Sheryl said she had heard in the "Battle of the Bulge" U.S. soldiers had frozen to death just by going to sleep; we decided not to go to sleep. I auctioneered for about an hour to help bring up the temperature.
As I recall, it was between midnight and 2 a.m. We saw a huge piece of steel alongside of our car. No one said anything because we thought we were dreaming or hallucinating. There was a pound on the window. It was help!
I can't remember how the rest of us got out of the car, but I remember them dragging me out of the window. From sitting on my feet, my knees had swelled up so much my legs would not straighten out. The National Guard had a 6x6 Army truck with cots and Army blankets for us in the back of a canvas-covered bed. There was heat coming in a pipe, probably from the engine.
We found out they had a CAT 988 loader with a huge coal mine bucket on the front. They had to literally dig out every foot they progressed to get to us. I was told all but one man wanted to turn back. He said some snowmobile was out illegally and saw our red slacks flapping in the wind. They were sure some people were in the car. So this man, whom I don't know, pushes everyone to have the equipment dig, to go one more mile, which took them a long time. Today, I don't even know his name. But we all four owe him our lives.
When the 988 loader started back, they had to again dig every foot out because the path had quickly blown shut. The loader was so large, it just would pick up an entire car and move it out of the pathway. It was a monster machine.
They took us to the Fishers Fire Department, where they had a temporary hospital. They ran our feet and hands through sand boxes to determine frostbite. That's when we found out Jim had frostbite that he obtained in less than two minutes. They gave us some hot drinks, including hot cider. They divided us up and took us to nearby houses to get some sleep.
My body started shaking so bad that I could not stop it. The doctor on duty, who lived nearby, told me my body was going into shock. I can't remember how he got it to stop, but he did. The people who took me in were very nice. I think I slept on a couch until noon or so. The State Police called my wife and asked her where I was, and she said somewhere in Texas and that I had not called in. The police told her I was sleeping in a volunteer firefighter's home in Fishers.
After a couple of days, when they took me home in a motor coach, I could not believe what I was seeing. An entire train stopped dead on the railroad. So many cars everywhere; some were on their sides. I suppose the big equipment trucks had to clear the highway for one lane. It looked like a war zone.
The Indianapolis Star ran a story: "Last known survivors of the '78 Blizzard found in a snow-covered car along I-69."
I can easily say it was the worst storm in our history, and I hope there is never another one. There had to be billions of dollars in damage and losses.
For a few years after the '78 blizzard, I carried three candles in my suitcase and several boxes of matches. Back then, I had never even heard of a cell phone. What a difference that would have made for us. This is the first time I have written about this experience, and I am doing so now because of your invitation.
A really, really, bad storm! My own memory of that storm was a good one, only in as much as I didn't have to go out in it.
I was working 3rd trick at the time, so when I didn't go to work I still stayed up all night. I opened the kitchen curtains so I could watch the storm, then sat at the kitchen table putting a radio together, while listening to another radio. By the time morning arrived all I could see of the house across the street was it's roof.