Southern New Englanders ride out Blizzard of '78 with WJAR

WJAR's live truck at the Rhode Island State House was a vital link to informing Southern New Englanders about the Blizzard of '78. (WJAR)

The blizzard began on Feb 6, 1978. By the time it stopped snowing the next night at midnight, Southern New England was paralyzed. NBC 10 became the communications lifeline for Southern New England during the emergency.

The snow started at 10:30 a.m. that Monday, after everyone had arrived at work and school.

"I had no idea it was going to take as long as it did," said Bill Dydowicz, retired WJAR-TV technician and live truck operator, "and it was going to be quite as bad as it was."

Dydowicz was the crucial communications link from the Civil Defense Headquarters, then located in the "bunker" of the Rhode Island State House, to the television studios in the Outlet Building in downtown Providence.

He made sure the signal was up and running, microphones and pictures activated, so those looking for information throughout the emergency could get it.

Once the severity of the storm began to sink in, Rhode Island Gov. J. Joseph Garrahy declared an emergency evacuation of all public buildings.

And then everyone tried to leave early, all at the same time, to beat the storm.

That set in motion what's called "The Plug." Cars got stuck. Snow coming down at 3 inches an hour piled higher. There were spinouts and car wrecks, and plows couldn't get through. Everything came to a standstill.

Six snowbound days later, there were 100 deaths region-wide and 4,500 people were injured. In today’s money, there was $2 billion in damage. There was 2 to 5 feet of snow, with 15-foot drifts. To this day, it's the grand-daddy of all blizzards here in modern history.

Being the first TV station on the air in the region back in 1949, first, has always been part of WJAR's legacy, including the first in the "designated market area." (DMA for short, how Nielsen defines a television household market) with a live truck. We still have the original, brought out of mothballs for the anniversary, with a mobile camera from that era, videotape, editing equipment, and a microwave transmitter too, used to get the signal back to the station for broadcast.

Dydowicz was the live truck operator called in early that Monday. He was asked to meet the truck at the State House bunker as soon as possible.

"We had the foresight of stationing our truck at the Civil Defense Headquarters, which was the main point of information for the whole state," he recalled.

WJAR-TV was the only station to have a live truck, and the only station with the capability of transmitting live video and audio for broadcast. (See some of the equipment.)

Just getting there was a challenge, even though Bill lived on the East Side.

"I couldn't even go up the hills at that point, and I had to abandon my car down at Moshassuck Square and walk the rest of the way," he remembered, as did thousands of others across Southern New England.

Dydowicz was stuck at the State House for nearly a week, as was new photographer Conrad Ostrowski -- who is still working at the station, now as a video editor.

"Nothing moved. We calmed a lot of people," Ostrowski said.

Not one to take credit, he asks, "What did I do? I just tried to capture the moment, as best I could, and, I don't know, it was an incredible experience."

Throughout the storm, he would take the heavy first-generation Electronic News Gathering equipment outside and shoot live shots, not just for WJAR-TV, but for the NBC Network "Today" show, then back inside the State House to be the pool camera for the other TV stations in the market as well to carry the emergency press conferences from the governor.

Those who made it home, and still had power, watched, between newscasts and special reports, "Snow Bound Theatre" on Channel 10, orchestrated by WJAR-TV broadcast engineer Larry Silva, going on his 48th year at the station.

"I was trained by the people who went on (the air) in 1949. They were World War II people. They'd been through a lot," remembered Silva. "And us young kids just did what we had to do. We stayed on the air, around the clock, and did everything we could do."

"It was good to give back to some of our loyal viewers," he added, referring to those key moments at a broadcast facility’s history that make or break the relationship between a station and those who watch.

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