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1980: The start of one of the hottest summers St. Louis has ever seen

1980: The start of one of the hottest summers St. Louis has ever seen

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ST. LOUIS • The temperature sizzled to 105 degrees on July 1, 1980, then fell sharply the following day. Relief would be fleeting.

The Southwest baked that summer in a pitiless heat wave. More than 60 people already had died in Texas when July began. The weather system built on itself, driving northward on baking winds.

In St. Louis, gathering heat pushed the high to 99 on July 7 and to 101 the next day. It would break 100 degrees on a withering nine of the next 14 days and reach 107 on July 15, the summer's worst. It would be 100 or hotter on 18 days that long, searing summer.

The heat wave would kill 153 people in the St. Louis area, most of them elderly, poor and living in stifling rooms without air conditioning. Many had kept their windows shut, fearing burglars more than swelter.

Look Back: Killer heat, 1980

A motorist on July 14, 1980, drives around a buckled section pavement on Theresa Avenue near Locust Street, west of downtown. It was one of several breaks in area streets caused by expansion from the relentless pounding of heat. (Sam Leone/Post-Dispatch)

Eleven had died of heat by July 10, when 12 more were reported that single day. The daily toll rocketed to 26 on July 14.

"We are running out of places to put the bodies," said Rose Marie Green at the St. Louis medical examiner's office, where stench smacked visitors at the front door.

Case files went like this: Otis Collier, 80, of the 5800 block of Terry Avenue, dead in a home with all windows closed. Myrtle Garrett, 73, of the 3500 block of Greer Avenue, dead in a room with an air conditioner that pumped out hot air. Melvin Shepard, 54, of the 700 block of Bayard Street, dead in 107-degree heat in an attic bedroom.

Patients wilted in the general wards at City Hospital, 1515 Lafayette Avenue, which lacked air conditioning. On July 11, the military provided truck-size portable air conditioners that pumped chilled air through fat pipes into the hospital windows. On Bi-State buses, cranky air conditioners worked half the time, making riders crankier.

Look Back: Killer heat, 1980

A chart published July 17, 1980, shows the numbers of deaths reported throughout the metro area on each of the previous nine days. The top of the chart shows the high temperatures. (Post-Dispatch)

The Missouri National Guard sent 200 troops into neighborhoods, knocking on doors to search for the ailing. On July 19, no deaths were reported.

"The old and the weak have died off," said Karl Reid, deputy St. Louis disaster director.

But more died as heat lingered. The temperature reached 100 or hotter on six of the first 10 days of August. Missouri's death toll topped 300.

The worst heat wave on record in St. Louis was in 1936, when more than 420 died. There have been serious hot spells since 1980, but that year remains the deadliest in recent memory. Most local households, even with low incomes, now have at least a window air conditioner. Recent heat deaths frequently include this maddening detail - the victim had an air conditioner, but wouldn't turn it on.

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