LEE COUNTY, Fla. - Twenty years ago today, "The Storm of the Century" struck the eastern seaboard, killing 310 people. Forty-four of those deaths were in Florida. The four-day superstorm that produced blizzard conditions and hurricane-force wind gusts sunk more ships than Hurricane Andrew. One of those wrecks included a 205 foot freighter, en route from Miami to Tampa.
Nearly 50 miles off Lee County's coast and 105 feet below the surface lie the remnants of what was once the Fantastico. News-Press partner Kevin Lollar and Meteorologist Katie Walls explore the bones of the freighter.
Now flourishing with marine life, the debris is a resting place for four of the crew members never recovered. A total of seven men died March 13th, 1993, when violent seas overwhelmed the ship, forcing her to sink on her side.
"Essentially the sea-state that day due to a sustained wind from the west at over 50 mph was building into the 12, 15, 20 foot categories, so obviously very dangerous conditions and subsequent sinkings were not a surprise," explains Chief Meteorologist Jim Farrell, who joined WINK one year prior to the Storm of the Century.
Because of the advancement in forecast models and technology, for the first time Farrell and other meteorologists predicted a storm of "historic proportion" five days in advance. The eastern third of the country was well-warned, but that didn't stop the impending destruction. "There were advisories up, gale force warnings in effect, and the damage should have been minimal unfortunately it was extensive," says Farrell.
"It looked like the Gulf of Mexico had moved into Matlacha. I found tremendous waves, the shrimp boats bouncing around. I found a lot of flooding, some cars being sprayed by the sea," recalls a Matlacha resident.
"I know from personal experience the wind was gusting into the mid 50s all day long...I remember all of the intersections, stop signs leveled from a very powerful, very windy day," remembers Farrell.
The Coast Guard rescued 235 people from more than 100 boats in the Gulf of Mexico.
Eleven tornadoes ripped through the Sunshine state, killing five.
With every passing hour the storm strengthened and moved up the eastern seaboard. Cold Canadian air coupled with the strengthening low produced wind gusts greater than one hundred miles per hour. Heavy, wet snow fell from the northern panhandle of Florida to Maine.
One of the hardest hit states was North Carolina, where fifty inches of snow fell near Ashville; the attending wind produced 14 foot drifts. Seventeen inches of snow blanketed Birmingham, Alabama. Even Pensacola picked up to four inches of snow.
Damage to trees and structures was extensive and more than three million people were left in the dark. For the first time, every major airport on the east coast was closed at one time or another during the storm.
For Southwest Florida The Storm of the Century's fierce wind and deadly waves that sunk the Fantastico won't soon be forgotten nor the lives taken by Mother Nature.