“We thought we’d see a little snow,” McNeel recalled this week. “We saw a lot of snow.”
McNeel and five of his friends, who brought along four dogs, didn’t realize what they were getting into when they packed up their pickups and left Marietta on Friday March 13, 1993. They are among many Cobb residents who won’t forget the blizzard that hit 20 years ago this week.
“We weren’t too smart as kids,” McNeel recalled this week. “We really didn’t have a plan.”
The friends drove about five miles off the main road, where they set up a campground. The snow was coming down softly when they went to bed around 2 a.m. When they woke up Saturday morning, McNeel said their tents had caved in and trees were down everywhere.
“We were lucky no one was killed,” said McNeel, who was fresh out of college and working at his family’s business, McNeel Builders Inc, at the time.
Challenge in Cobb County
The group was stuck in a blizzard, dubbed the “storm of the century.” The storm hit Cobb County that Friday with 50 mph wind gusts and sleet and rain that turned to snow early Saturday when temperatures dropped into the low 30s. A wind chill factor of 10-to-20 degrees below zero was felt Saturday night. Cobb received between 8 and 10 inches of snow, while the north Georgia mountains saw up to 20 inches. The storm killed more than 100 people, six of them in Georgia.
Back in Cobb, officials were dealing with snowed over roads, and more than 3,350 911 emergency calls, mostly on Saturday. County Manager David Hankerson, who had just taken the job on about a month earlier, remembers riding the streets with then-transportation director Jim Croy to see the work county employees were doing to get the roads ready when people started heading back to work Monday.
Hankerson said it was a blessing that the snow came early in the weekend, giving the county time to prepare.
“You’ve got to have a plan and every one of them is different,” he said. “Even if it’s flooding, even if it’s ice or snow, there’s something different about each one of these.”
Current Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin, a tax attorney, said he was busy preparing tax returns when the storm hit. He wasn’t able to stop work.
“I couldn’t find the rule where they extended April 15 that year, so I had to keep plugging,” he said.
While he had a four-wheel-drive truck, not many others made it into work, Tumlin said. School was also closed on Monday.
“It was like the world went way back to the 1800s,” he said. “Things slowed down, so it was kind of nice.”
Tumlin did have one issue to deal with. Two of his teenage children had friends sleep over Friday night. They ended up staying for three days.
In the mountains, the Mariettans dug their way out of their tents Saturday, surrounded by snow three to eight feet high and fallen pine trees. They tried in vain to move snow out of the way to allow their four-wheel drive trucks to make it through, only to have the space they just cleared refill with snow. So, on Sunday afternoon, they decided to start walking to try to get help.
“As we trampled through the snow, we realized that walking was a difficult task,” McNeel said.
After walking for about an hour, the young men came upon a cabin. But the sign declaring “All trespassers will be shot on site,” wasn’t exactly welcoming. Still, they decided to knock on the door for help, with McNeel being the lucky one selected to knock.
“He came to the door with a gun pointed at us,” McNeel said.
The mountain man said it would likely be another week before anyone got to the house, which had no electricity, telephone or running water. McNeel said he offered no help.
At that point, the group decided to split up, with McNeel and Trey Ingram continuing to look for help, while Clay and David McKinnon, David Pendergrass and Chattanooga resident Jim Smith, the only non-Mariettan in the group, tried to find their way back to the campsite.
With no food, water or camping gear and darkness falling, McNeel and Ingram hiked another two miles in snow up to three feet high, coming upon another cabin just as they became exhausted. Luckily, the owners of this home were much friendlier than the proprietor of the previous cabin. They let them sit by the fire they had started and sleep in a nearby cabin.
“They were super nice,” McNeel said.
The next morning, McNeel and Ingram hiked into Cisco. At a store there, they hitched a ride to a ranger station, where they were able to point out the location of the campsite on a map.
McNeel and Ingram were able to find a place to sleep in an extra room that was used for storage at a booked-up motel. While they were there, they heard that their friends had been safely airlifted to a hospital in Chatsworth.
Dealing with emergency
Cobb Fire Capt. Chris Sobieski, who then held the rank of firefighter, remembers responding on a “lot of calls” around the blizzard. They used smaller four-wheel drive trucks that were able to respond on calls the department’s larger vehicles might have had trouble with. While responding to one call, a car hit their truck.
“It was more damage to their vehicle than ours,” Sobieski said. “We stopped and looked and made sure they were OK, and continued on to the emergency call.”
Sobieski, whose been in Cobb 24 years, said the blizzard was the worst snow storm he’s had to deal with since he left Washington, D.C. The only one to come close was the 2011 storm that dumped more than four inches of snow on parts of the county.
“It was a long 48 hours,” he said of the 1993 storm.
While McNeel and Ingram were searching for help, the other four campers retraced their steps about two miles back to the camp. Once they got back, Clay McKinnon said they started rationing the little bit of food they had left — some raw chicken and a can of cheese balls.
“We didn’t know when we were going to be rescued,” he said.
Late Monday afternoon, they saw a helicopter fly by. While it didn’t land the pilot saw the campers because another chopper flew in an hour later, and park Ranger Mike Davis dropped in.
“They told us to load up and lock up (our trucks),” Clay McKinnon said.
Two of the campers got in one small helicopter while the other two got in another. They were taken to an open field, where they changed over to a larger National Guard Huey helicopter, which took them to the hospital. Clay McKinnon said they got warm blankets, soup, pecan pie and milk there, before being taken by taxi to a closed motel in Chatsworth, where they stayed.
After they were reunited with McNeel and Ingram, the father of one of the campers came and picked them up and brought them to Marietta. They were able to return to pick up their trucks a week later.
Clay McKinnon, now 42 and a supply chain manager for a plastics molding company, does admit to having one regret. He said they brought some flares with them, in case something went wrong, but they didn’t have them when they could have come in handy.
“I think we shot them off Friday night having a good time,” he said.
Clay McKinnon, now a Powder Springs resident, said he looks back on the trip fondly.
“We chalk it up as a good time and a fairly good experience,” he said. “We weren’t scared at all. I think everybody was enjoying the time.”
McNeel, now 44 and living in northwest Cobb, said their experience was something out of a reality show that hadn’t debuted yet.
“You didn’t have all the survival shows back then,” said McNeel, now a vice president at McNeel Builders. “We were mainly just running off adrenaline.”
Editor's Note: For more on the blizzard view Damon Poirier's Thursday, March 14th MDJ Time Capsule - The Blizzard of 1993.