Twenty years later, Pittsburgh residents remember St. Patrick's Day Parade blizzard


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It is an Irish legend born in an American city.

That on March 13, 1993, even though a blizzard dumped more than 23 inches of snow on Pittsburgh in a single 24-hour period, the St. Patrick's Day Parade still proceeded through Downtown as scheduled. The plows led the procession.

Twenty years later, the legend remains a part of the local St. Patrick's Day lore.

"It's like Woodstock. Everybody was there," said Jan Griffith, 66, of Beechview, the current parade organizer. She said that even two decades later, while planning for the parade, someone will still invariably say: "I hope it's not going to be like '93."

That year, it wasn't even supposed to snow. At least not during the parade.

"We were going to get done before the snow came, that was the idea," said Glenn Cannon, a Highland Park resident who is director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

This year, Mr. Cannon is the grand marshal of the parade. In 1993, he was on the parade committee, but he was also the city's public safety director. And so, on the morning of the parade, he stood next to the Civic Arena with then-Mayor Sophie Masloff and other city officials, contemplating the snow that wasn't supposed to start until 2 p.m.

"It was snowing already, and it was snowing terribly," Mr. Cannon said. And although trucks had been plowing the parade route since dawn, they couldn't keep up with the pace of the falling snow.

Later that week, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that on the day of the parade, snow was falling at a rate of 1.5 to 3.5 inches an hour between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. That weekend, the storm paralyzed the region. Then-Gov. Robert Casey declared a state of emergency. The Pennsylvania Turnpike from Monroeville to west of Carlisle was closed. Pittsburgh International Airport was shut down.

At least 12 local deaths were attributed to the storm, mostly caused by heart attacks due to shoveling snow. The snow caused widespread cancellations over the weekend, and even Hidden Valley Resort in Somerset County closed briefly so the ski resort could dig out its chair lifts.

Parade organizers also thought about calling it off but decided they did not want to go down in Pittsburgh Irish history as the ones who canceled the parade, Mr. Cannon said.

So as usual, the parade stepped off at 10 a.m., the marchers following behind two plows clearing the way. Kevin Conboy, then 31, had traveled Downtown from his home in Whitehall to march in the parade, no matter the snow.

"It's a total family tradition that we're there whether or not it rains, snows, sleets or sunshine," said Mr. Conboy, now the merchandising chairman for the parade committee. He has now marched in the parade for 50 of his 51 years, since he could walk.

But he'd never seen snow like he did in '93. It was no easy march, and in a mind full of memories from half a century's worth of St. Patrick's Day parades, that one sticks out.

It's not one Elaine Walsh Caparelli will soon forget, either.

"Our feet were freezing. We were covered with snow," said Ms. Walsh Caparelli, 57, of Atlasburg in Washington County.

Ms. Walsh Caparelli, who 20 years ago was living in Mount Washington, made her way with her Irish family to the parade route, where the snow was coming down quickly and piling up high on the ground. They completed the route, cheered on by a small number of parade watchers lining the roads.

"With all the snow, that was the most fun at a parade that we've had," she said.

Adding a caveat, Terry Griffith agreed.

"It was a fun day, but I don't ever want to do it again," said Mr. Griffith, 65, who is married to the current parade organizer.

An Irish entertainer, Mr. Griffith didn't march in the parade because he was scheduled to perform afterwards. He stood in the Smithfield Cafe, Downtown, watching the snow pile up. His wife, however, was in the thick of it.

"It was coming down really hard," she said. "You could hardly see 15 to 20 feet up the road at some points." The parade marched, as fast as it could.

Mr. Cannon, from his spot at the reviewing stand, could barely see who was marching by. He would learn later that people all over the world had seen the snow-covered Pittsburgh parade on CNN.

"It was just absolutely the most insane time I've ever had," Ms. Griffith said.

Since that year, there have been parades where it snowed, but the story of the 1993 St. Patrick's Day parade still stands apart, yet to be replaced by a fresher yarn.

The legend, it seems, will live on. Ms. Griffith starts checking the forecast for the parade with 10 days to go, then she checks again, and again, and again. For now, Saturday doesn't look like snow.

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Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/


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