The blizzard of 1993 remains etched in the memories of East Tennesseans as we approach 25 years since the walloped much of the country.
A Maryville man who was hiking in the mountains during “the storm of the century” gained a lifetime of appreciation for Mother Nature’s power and the heroics of helicopter crews.
"Tomorrow is a gift. Tomorrow is a gift," said Roger Redding. "These folks risked their own lives to be out and save us."
Redding and a group of three other friends hiked to Bob’s Bald in the Nantahala National Forest, just across the Tennessee state line in North Carolina on March 12, 1993. That’s the same day the blizzard rolled into East Tennessee and dumped 15 inches of wet snow on Knoxville in a day and a half. The heavy snow piles combined with hurricane-force winds to knock out power to many people for several days.
Redding and his friends were unaware of the dire situation in cities throughout East Tennessee. They were stranded and fighting for survival on a mountaintop.
"We heard on the news there might be a little snow and we thought how beautiful it would be to be in the mountains," said Roger Redding. "We got up there, set up our two tents, and boy it started getting cold. We could see lightning in the distance and the snow really started to come down and stick. Most of us had experience hiking. We thought, ‘Oh, gosh, we’ve never been in anything like this.’ We did not get much sleep that night."
The heavy snow drifts collapsed Redding’s tent. The group waited for sunrise before making a break back to their vehicle a few miles away.
"It was deep blizzard conditions where you could barely see in front of your own face. The snow was so deep and coming down so hard, your knees were never out of the snow. The snow immediately covered your tracks. We stumbled over rocks and logs and everything else. One of the guys in our group kept asking if we were going in circles. It was so cold, there was ice on my face and in my nose," said Redding.
The group fought through the confusion of a blinding snow and resisted the temptation to stop while they searched for their Ford Bronco.
"If you sat down and got out of the wind, you had this false sensation of being warm. You knew you had to keep going because the exposure would hurt you. You are scared to death and exhausted, but you have to keep going," said Redding.
After several hours of trudging through several feet of snow, the group spotted the sign at the trail head and jumped in the four-wheel-drive Bronco to make their escape.
"We turn the ignition, it starts up, we reach down and put it into gear, and we think we're going home. We go about three feet. The snow is heavy. The drifts were over 12 feet deep. And that Bronco became our home for the next several days," said Redding.
The group had shelter, a little food, and enough gas to occasionally turn on the engine for heat. The blessing of warmth came with the curse of moisture.
"We had ice sickles on the roof of that Bronco from the vapor of our breathing. The heat would melt the ice and there was no way to ever get our clothes dry. We were wet and we were tired. We were all in our sleeping bags, sitting up in the Bronco. I've never been colder in my life," said Redding.
The blizzard not only buried their vehicle, it provided a dose of humility for a group of experienced hikers.
"You like to think that you're smart enough to get your way out of a situation, but you can't. You need someone to save you."
The storm finally stopped Sunday. The crowded Bronco gained an additional passenger when a lost hiker spotted the vehicle.
"This kid from South Carolina knocks on the Bronco. He got separated from his group. His friends thought he was dead. Now there are five of us in the Bronco with this 17-year-old guy who smelled really bad. But he was a friendly guy and kept us entertained. We all entertained ourselves, told stories, and tried to stay positive," said Redding.
With five souls stranded in the SUV, help finally emerged from the heavens late Sunday.
"I felt this vibration in my chest. It was a National Guard chopper looking for people that were lost. We waved our jackets and out comes this red thing that falls into the snow. I volunteer to go get it. It was a red t-shirt wrapped around a pair of pliers to weigh it down. It had a note on a folded-up piece of maintenance log. It had one word written on it. It said the word ‘tomorrow.’ And that was the most glorious thing. Tomorrow! We were going to get rescued or something good was going to happen tomorrow. We all started singing the song ‘Tomorrow’ from the play Annie."
Monday, March 15, 1993, the National Guard reeled in Redding and his friends from the depths of a snow-covered mountain.
"The helicopter lowered this soldier, another guy and I got on this harness with the soldier, it pulled us up, and the pilots had to leave with just two of us because they were running low on fuel. They came back and got the other three. When I was in that chopper, what an amazing sight to see the mountains, and the blue sky and all the snow."
Redding and friend Bob Hatch were flown to the Air National Guard base. The rest of the group was flown to UT Medical Center.
"I asked for a phone to call my wife, having no idea she had been without power with our kids for a couple of days. I told her, ‘We are alive and well and we’re doing good.’ She said, ‘Not for long, you are not.’ I have gotten a lot of mileage out of telling that story. It is funny, but we truthfully had put our families in a great deal of fear," said Redding.
Rescue crews air-lifted more than 200 hikers trapped in the mountains by the blizzard. That included rescuing a group of 117 school kids from Michigan who were on a school trip to the Great Smoky Mountains. Some members of the group lost toes and parts of limbs to frostbite. However, the marathon effort by helicopter pilots and rescue workers made sure nobody lost their lives.
"There were lots of heroes in the Blizzard of '93. We were not one of them. We were saved by heroes who had their own families and friends dealing with the same blizzard. It is humbling how these people helped us," said Redding.
Redding still loves to hike in the mountains. The same group of friends reunited for a hiking trip to the same location in March 1994.
At his office in Alcoa, Redding has a bible that contains the message that fell from above during the Blizzard of ’93.
"I have that folded-up piece of maintenance log that has the word ‘tomorrow’ on it. It is a treasure. And tomorrow is a gift."