Endurance test for road crews Snow job: Before the storm hit, while it raged and until the snow is cleared, salt trucks and plows struggle to keep the roads open.

Snowed under

Blizzard Of 1996

January 08, 1996|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

After spreading salt until nearly 3 a.m., Rodney Masilek got some rest -- a 2 1/2 -hour snooze in the rear seat of a panel truck. Then, while most of metropolitan Baltimore slumbered, he set out again before daybreak yesterday to push some serious snow.

Like hundreds of other highway workers called to snow duty in Maryland, the 29-year-old Parkville man had no firm idea when he'd next see his own bed. He circled the Towson business district in Baltimore County Highway Bureau dump truck 118, plowing streets and trying to stay ahead of what was shaping up as the Blizzard of '96.

"That's another road punched through," he said after a few passes down Allegheny Avenue. "It's just enough for a fire truck or an ambulance, somebody that needs to get through. But it ain't pretty."

It was not yet dawn, and the streets of the county seat were virtually deserted. Neon lights from the shops and saloons threw reds and purples onto snow-covered sidewalks. Men in pickup trucks plowed parking lots at businesses, but most of Baltimore was hibernating, and there was almost no traffic. Mr. Masilek could pass through red lights, make U-turns in the middle of normally busy roads and plow on.

With a forecast for more than 2 feet of snow, his job was to try to hold his ground on the "ones" -- snow removal jargon for the main roads. Mr. Masilek, a burly man with a red beard and curly red hair that falls beyond his shoulders, said, "The side streets are going to be chaos until it stops snowing."

Indeed, the main roads were the priority under the snow battle plan yesterday in Baltimore County. Workers such as Mr. Masilek were called Saturday morning and told to report at 9 o'clock that night. About 200 county trucks hit the streets and dropped 5,000 tons of salt on 2,500 miles of road. Officials hoped the salt would prevent the accumulating snow from sticking to the roads, allowing for cleaner plowing.

The next salting was not to take place until after the snow stops, and after the streets are plowed. Until then, trucks would plow and plow, and snow would fall and fall.

C. Richard Moore, chief of the county Bureau of Highways and Traffic, said yesterday, "This is probably going to be the worst storm I've dealt with, if the forecast is right."

He said the county would easily spend $500,000 in salt to fight the snow. He could not provide an estimate on how much would be spent in overtime pay.

As a two-day affair, the storm provided an endurance test for the drivers and other workers.

"The guys have paced themselves to be set for the long haul," said Ed Stewart, superintendent for the highway department's Towson district.

It didn't take Mr. Masilek long to see that this was going to be a tough one.

Thinking of all the people who stayed home yesterday, he said, "I'd love to be sitting back on the couch, drinking a cup of coffee, looking out the window."

But comfort came from the rock music on the radio and the prospect of at least $600 in overtime pay.

He was not interested in pondering nature's awesome power.

"If it wasn't for the money, I wouldn't be here," he said. "Let it snow. Everybody else hates it, but we love it."

Yesterday, he climbed into a Ford 800 series dump truck, loaded with tons of salt and equipped with a swivel plow that allowed him to direct his wake. He manipulated the plow and occasionally the salt spreader with a panel of switches in the truck cab.

This is a workday in a snow truck: You pull over and use your bare hands to bang ice from your windshield wipers. Later, you pull a shovel from the back of the truck to loosen clumps of slush from the windshield.

If you drive too slow, you don't push the snow far enough to make room for the snow that is yet to come. Drive too fast, and the powdery snow blows back against the windshield, nearly blinding you.

And, if you were plowing yesterday, it seemed the more you plowed, the harder it snowed. And there was no end in sight.

Driving past the county jail, Mr. Masilek plowed a lane on Kenilworth Drive. The wind strengthened and drifts of snow quickly covered his work. He shook his head and said, "I feel like I'm beating a dead dog with this.

"We'll just keep on trying, keep on pushing. That's what we get paid for."

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