‘It was just like a complete whiteout tunnel’: Woman recalls a harrowing drive home during the Blizzard of ‘78

"It will affect me the rest of my life."

Military equipment was flown into Boston to clear snow from the southbound lane of Route 128 between Highland Avenue and Great Plain Avenue in Needham following the Blizzard of 1978. –John Blanding / The Boston Globe

Martha Travis-Cook still is afraid of driving in the snow.

It’s a fear that she can trace back 40 years, when she and a friend survived a harrowing drive from Boston to Bridgewater during the Blizzard of 1978.

“I hope we don’t see the likes of it again any time soon,” Travis-Cook told Boston.com. “My heart has always gone out to the families of the people who didn’t quite make it home.”

About 4,000 drivers got stranded on an 8-mile stretch of Route 128 between Needham and Canton that Monday, and 14 people died, mostly due to carbon monoxide poisoning as the accumulating snow and drifts covered their exhaust systems, according to The Boston Globe. Travis-Cook, coming from Interstate 93, turned off onto Route 24 just before this section.

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Now 69 and retired, Travis-Cook was 29 at the time of the storm, commuting to her job in Government Center from her apartment near Bridgewater State. She remembers watching from her office as the snow fell more heavily throughout the day on Feb. 6.

She said no one knew at the time how hard the storm was going to hit.

“We weren’t allowed to leave,” she said. “And they finally let us go at 3 o‘clock in the afternoon, which was really too late to get a safe start.”

She picked up her friend, Renee, who rode with her every day to and from the city. 

“I remember we got onto 128, and it may have been the difference between driving south and driving west, but all visibility was lost,” she said. “It was just so scary. It was just like a complete whiteout tunnel.”

One minute, the guard rails would appear on the right side of her 1972 Super VW Bug. A few seconds later, they’d appear on the other side.

Travis-Cook said she and her friend each took a scraper and used the brushes to clear the windshield, leaning out the windows as they drove. As they moved farther west down the highway, they saw cars pulled over on the right side of the road.

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“I don’t know if they had run out of gas or they were trying to wait out the storm,” she said. “And at one point there was someone in a car who was just lifeless, so to speak. Eyes wide open but leaned up against the window.”

At the time, she said she and Renee thought the man may have died, but they “didn’t dare pull over and stop” given the dangerous road conditions.

They read news reports afterward that people had died on the road from carbon monoxide poisoning.

“We were terribly frightened,” she said.

They spotted the overhead sign — partially covered in snow — for the exit to Route 24 toward Bridgewater. When they merged onto the highway, Travis-Cook said she made sure to get behind the cab of a semi truck, hugging one car length behind the larger vehicle.

An aerial view of cars buried in snow on Route 128 near the Dedham and Westwood line. —Ed Jenner / The Boston Globe

They followed the truck until their exit.

“There was no visibility, but if he could see better than I could, I hoped he just wouldn’t slam on the brakes or go off the road,” she recalled.

The two women drove the three miles to Renee’s apartment, where Travis-Cook said she got stuck as she backed out from dropping her friend off. “By the grace of God” a man walking by gave her car a push, she said.

It was another mile home, and as she turned into her apartment complex she ended three feet up on a snowbank. Travis-Cook said she belly crawled from her car across the unplowed parking lot to the front door where her roommates pushed the door open as much as they could and pulled her through.

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She’d made it.

Her typical commute took under an hour, but that day it took three.

Once inside — her adrenaline still surging from the stressful and dangerous drive — Travis-Cook took off her jacket and started running.

“I just ran up the flights and down the hall,” she said. “People opened their doors to see who it was. I would run by and just say, ‘I just drove from Boston,’ and they just let me run up and down. I ran up and down three flights about three or four times and then somebody greeted me with a glass of Scotch.”

Her hands hurt from gripping the wheel and she’d been clenching her jaw so much it hurt for days.

Travis-Cook and her roomates spent the rest of the week largely in the apartment. She didn’t go to work for a week. When she did, she informed her bosses that the next time it snowed, she would decide when she got to go home.

She moved to California the next year. She said she was “done” with winter. 

“I was definitely traumatized by it even though I was so thankful that I made it,” she said. “I don’t know if it was having Renee with me, or having some common sense, or just the grace of God that got me home. I made it and I’ll always be thankful for that.”

After living on the West Coast and in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Travis-Cook moved back the East Coast, settling in Corinth, Vermont, in 1996.

“New England was always in my heart and I wanted to come home,” she said.

Over the years, Travis-Cook said it took her husband, a born and raised Vermonter, a long time to understand why she would put her head down and cover it with the hood of her coat whenever she was a passenger traveling in the snow.

“It will affect me the rest of my life,” she said. “I’m much better these days, but it will always be there. The thankfulness for surviving and that neither of us were hurt, but sometimes the faces in the car will flashback. But I’m just thankful — let’s just say it’s made me very cautious.”

Since Travis-Cook retired from Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center where she worked as an administrator in patient education, she said she chooses to stay home if it snows.

“I don’t think anything to date will impact me like that Blizzard of ‘78,” she said.