Probably the most memorable experience while working for Norfolk & Carolina was March 1 and 2, 1980 when Northeast North Carolina had a real blizzard.
There are a few sounds in a Strowger toll center (class 4/5) that will really get your attention. One is silence. The other is a dozen or so switches all picking up and releasing in unison. This usually meant a toll facility was experiencing a total failure over some route. Well, we had one route east out of Elizabeth City on microwave that went to eight offices along the Atlantic coast.
During this blizard the utility power went out to the whole area. Our generators came on line and our alarm panel (Lenkurt 51F) showed everything running OK except no utility power. The generators had a lot of fuel so we all went home and slept.
Well, sometime during the night all the Strowger switches from Dare County and Mamie went siezed up. Since there was this blizzard outside, the night operators reported it to the supervisors but they didn't call anybody out immediately. I came into the office and my boss was already there checking things.
It seems we had lost power completely at the second site out. The site was not responding to anything. Completely dead. This was the Mamie central office and microwave repeater in lower Currituck County. We had no communication with the whole of the Outer Banks or Dare County. There were seven central offices off-line.
Well, my partner and I got in our Dodge telephone van and took off toward Mamie. We got about as far as Barco in central Currituck County. There we ran into a solid line of vehicles stopped in the road.
After talking to some of the people up ahead, we determined that there was a big tandem tractor-trailer jack-knifed in the middle of the road up ahead. Remember ... there was this blizzard? It was still raging. There was one drift off to the right that turned out to contain a house. Well, with all these vehicles stopped in the road like this, it made a natural snow fence. It wasn't very long before the whole road - vehicles and all - was one big snow drift. Remember, this is in the SOUTH of the US. This was a very unusual storm and nobody expected it and nobody was prepared.
Well, up ahead at the intersection there was this little country store. It wasn't real big. Being the only public facility in the area, all the vehicle occupants naturally went there to wait out the storm and see what would develop. Pretty soon it got dark. I had my ham radio with me and managed to call our boss in Elizabeth City and tell him we would not be able to get to Mamie.
After a while one of our linemen came in the store. We were really surprised to see him. He had been sent to rescue us. They had the big all-wheel-drive line-truck down the road behind all those cars that were buried under the snowdrifts. Actually it turned out to be quite a distance back down the road. It wouldn't have been in clear weather, but this was night with a blizzard raging. We weren't exactly dressed like an Eskimo either. I managed to follow the fence line along the road until I could make out this big truck with all it's lights blazing away. The back crew cab was the only place with space for me. It wasn't heated either. I was about as cold as I have ever been, and that includes since I moved to Alaska. So I sat there in the cold crew cab expecting to get under way any minute. Time dragged on like it can really drag when you are real cold and think something should be happening NOW and it ISN'T.
Later I found out that somebody got lost on the way back to the truck and they were out looking for him. I still don't know who it was nor did I ever find out exactly who else was along on this rescue. Heck, we didn't feel we needed rescuing because the store was warm and they still had power. We were comfortable in the store, but I guess the boss didn't want to abandon us out there.
Eventually we made it back to Elizabeth City and got a good night's sleep. The next morning we got back in the big line truck and headed back out to pick up the pieces. By this time the blizzard was over and the sun was above an overcast sky with calm winds.
When we got back to Barco, the highway people were on scene with a big loader clearing the road one vehicle at a time. Our timing was perfect because they were just up to our yellow Dodge telephone van right then. I got in and started it right up. A few linemen helped push it back out of the drift and the big loader cleared the drift away right then. It was like a well orchestrated ballet. There were still quite a lot of vehicles stuck in the road, so while they cleared more of them, we went back to the same store as the previous night.
Wow, all the shelves were completely BARE! As it turned out, the people who took shelter in the store, ripped them off for just about everything in the store. They got paid only for a small part of it. I mean, they cleared the shelves off for somewhere to sleep, but all the merchandise disappeared. The store owners were rather bitter and I certainly don't blame them. I'm sure it made a big difference in their outlook on everything from then on.
After a little while, we managed to get on down the road to the south toward Mamie. We didn't take the Dodge van, but we went in the big line truck. There were still big drifts across the highway. We were the first ones to blaze the trail and went right through a lot of big drifts with huge clouds of snow going flying off in every direction. It's sure nice to have a really good go-anywhere big line truck.
After a short while, we found ourselves in Mamie. I opened the door to the building. Silence was everywhere. No hum... No clicking... Silence... Cold... The inside was just as cold as the outside. I checked the exchange battery for 48 volts. Hmmm... Was the meter working? It read zero. Why did the generator stop? There was plenty of fuel. Out to the generator building... It was a seperate building out behind the exchange. I got the door unlocked, opened it, and... something's wrong here. I don't remember there being a second door. Oh, it's not a door, It's SNOW! It seems that the radiator fan circulated air right through the generator building and over the radiator. It had sucked snow into the building and packed it right solid to the ceiling! I guess the engine air intake couldn't breathe anymore and the engine starved for air and quit.
The ever handy line crew pitched in and shoveled the snow out. We got the generator running at about the same time as the utility power came back on. Meanwhile reinforcements had arrived and some switchmen attended to the batteries, the chargers and got the furnace running.
During this outage, all of Dare County and lower Currituck County were cut off from the world's telephone network. Hatteras Island couldn't even call the County Seat in Manteo to talk to emergency services because it was a toll call that had to be switched in Elizabeth City.
Now I understand there is a fiber to Hatteras. A few years ago, I heard about a ship knocking out the bridge in a storm and severing communications again.
Today I live on Kodiak Island Alaska where we only have satellite connection to the world. Our calls are switched through DMS-10's here. I have a few treasures though. I have some Strowger switches and my trusty ham radio...