Ice Storm of ‘98: 25 Years Later Part 1

Published: Jan. 9, 2023 at 7:30 PM EST
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BANGOR, Maine (WABI) - 25 years ago, the state of Maine was under ice.

A weather event hit the region like none before, or that has come after.

Over the next few nights, were going to look back at the Ice Storm of ‘98.

We’ll hear from Senator Angus King, who was then Governor, about what it was like leading the state.

And we’ll hear from Mainers who lived through the ordeal.

To start, we spoke with former TV5 Meteorologist Chris Ewing, and then Bangor Hydro, now Versant, line worker Kevin O’Connell about what caused all that weather that made the lights go out... and the efforts to get them back on.

“We aren’t going to be able to escape,” forecasted Ewing all those years ago.

Looking back he recalled, “Probably three or four days in advance, it looked like the setup was getting, you know, pretty conducive to a fairly serious icing event.”

We asked, what is it that actually caused this huge amount of weather to hit the state and really the region?

“We have this massive what’s called the Bermuda high which is more of a summertime occurrence, so it was pumping a lot of warm air up into the region. At the same time, we had a cold, blocking high up over southern Canada. The warm air overrode the cold air. It was really warm aloft, it was like well above freezing up on top of Mount Washington, but down at the surface, it was just bitterly cold or well below freezing. And so, you got precipitation coming down as rain, and then the ground was just cold as could be and freezing right on contact.”

“It was overwhelming,” said O’Connell. “I actually had a supervisor at the time, said, that’s it. We’re done. That’s it. And, of course, we regrouped and went on, took care of the situation for a long time, and it was not easy. It was hard.”

We asked about the dangers of branches falling on electrical workers.

“It literally suddenly bombs going off,” O’Connell recalled. We had has we worked, like, I’d be up on a ladder on a house and my other guy would be covering for me, say, hey, look out. Here comes one. Here comes another one. We were constantly covering each other’s back for that reason. Make sure we didn’t get hit, and we were fortunate nobody really got hurt.”

25 years later, we returned to Plaisted Street in Bangor, one of the many areas left in the dark.

“One of the nights earlier in the storm when I left the shop, we used to go down on Main Street and go over the 395 Bridge, and Brewer was black,” O’Connell said. “It’s pretty ominous feeling, and, you know, you got a job ahead of you when the whole city is black.”

“I remember the first night briefly,” added Ewing. “I lived only two or three miles from the station, so I ran home to check on my wife and son, make sure they were okay because we had lost power. And I remember seeing the sky light up. I was outside and seeing the sky light up, and I’m going, is that thunder and lightning? And no, it’s transformers blowing. And just knowing that and just watching different areas go dark.”

TV5 visited O’Connell and his family all those years ago.

“It was tough. I mean, you know, we go and work, you know, 20-24 hours, then you got to go home and take care of your own family. And so, I had to go back, and we were out of power for five days, and my family only had a fireplace in the living room to stay warm, and you get to go back take care of your roof, make sure your house is still stable, and the family, and then try to get a little bit of sleep, and then go back and do it again for another 20 hours.”

While we were talking - former Bangor High School and Husson Football Coach Gabby Price happened across us. He lived near by .. and still does.. He too - all those years ago was without power - and overjoyed when he got it back..

“When they came came and turn on the power I gave a hug and so did my wife,” he said.

He proceeded to give Kevin a hug.

“I think you know in situations like that people come together,” said Ewing. “So if you’re out and you don’t have a woodstove but your neighbor does. Everybody’s over at the neighbor’s house trying to stay warm and it’s amazing. How many people kind of say, Hey, I don’t even know you, but you’re three houses down. And you know you end up becoming lifelong friends because of something like that.”

We asked Kevin, for you being out there in the world. There must have been a fair amount of people who are maybe shaking fists saying ‘hey, come into my neighborhood, but at the same time people saying thank you for getting my lights back on’.

“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “I mean, I remember one guy on North Main Street pulled right in front of the truck. My coworker says go around him, the guy gets out. He’s got two cups of coffee.”

“25 years later, you get a hug from Gabby Price,” we said.

“Very true,” answered O’Connell. “Not everyone can say that.”