The snow had finally stopped. For more than a day, a fleet of 678 plows and diggers had churned across Boston chasing the February blizzard, like Sisyphus pushing the boulder uphill.
But then, all at once, almost all the plows went silent.
Many of the drivers had already been behind the wheel for too long, threading broad blades down Boston’s narrow, hilly streets. And the slip and slide of cars was about to complicate the task, because the governor had just lifted the state’s first travel ban in a generation.
So as Bostonians began digging out from 2 feet of snow that Saturday night, city officials delivered an order: Get off the road, they told the plows, and take a five-hour break.
An analysis of GPS data from the city’s snow plows — almost 300,000 pings that recorded the location and movement of each truck during the storm — illustrates the herculean campaign undertaken to cope with the fifth-largest snowfall in Boston history. Colonial-era lanes become overwhelmed when snowfall hits the 18-inch mark, meaning the snow can no longer be pushed by plows and must be slowly dug out by backhoes.
Like any paralyzing snowfall, this storm — and the response to it — generated intense scrutiny. Some side streets, especially narrow ways and dead ends, would be lost for days, impassable and buried under 25 inches of snow, prompting an apology from Mayor Thomas M. Menino. But the administration also defended its response to the storm, saying major roads remained clear and public safety was never imperiled.
The city threw every piece of snow removal equipment it could muster at the storm, which would ultimately cost Boston more than $14 million.
Impassable streets did cause problems. A fire engine heading to a blaze in Dorchester got mired in the snow, forcing firefighters to drag a hose more than a block to douse the flames. In Charlestown, paramedics had to use a sled to evacuate a 91-year-old who had surgery scheduled at Massachusetts General Hospital.
The global positioning data also showed:
■ One plow driver working for a city contractor was toiling on Massachusetts Avenue and crossed the Charles River into Cambridge, clearing several streets in the wrong city. The driver got lost and will not be paid for any of his work, city officials said.
■ Plows spent most of their time scraping the city’s major streets, which were largely cleared down to the pavement.
■ There was no discernible pattern as to which side streets were cleared— and which weren’t. In some neighborhoods, hills or narrow roads posed an impediment. In others, equipment broke down, and the snow piled up too fast for standard plows to push it.
The global positioning devices — Kyocera DuraMax cellphones handed to all plow drivers — are imprecise. The signal can be off by a few blocks and only transmits location every one to two minutes, making it hard to follow the exact path of every plow. It was impossible, for example, to accurately determine the number of streets left unplowed for days after the storm.
For years, Boston has used outside contractors to do most of its plowing. The city’s public works department has 78 plows and salt spreaders, which is only enough for a dusting. Most of the muscle — in the case of the February blizzard, more than 90 percent of the equipment — comes from 10 private companies that bid for three-year contracts. The plowing in that storm cost the city roughly $8.3 million, of which $7.8 million will be paid to contractors. The city spent $6 million more removing massive snow berms from curbs and corners.
Private plow drivers report to one of Boston’s 10 public works yards, where they are handed a printed map and one of the Kyocera cellphones. The printed maps delineate plow drivers’ turf — a few dozen city blocks they are supposed to patrol like a beat cop. Other teams prowl the city’s major roads, plowing thoroughfares such as Dorchester and Blue Hill avenues end to end. Public Works sends out inspectors to make sure the job is getting done.
For the blizzard, the city asked contractors for everything they had. After a season without snow, some companies had sold off equipment, city officials said, but contractors still provided an army of plows. By the Friday when the blizzard arrived, the city had more gear on the road than when a major storm struck right after Christmas in 2010.
The Globe found that the plow-driver break that began at 5 p.m. on the Saturday of the blizzard had a significant and perhaps unavoidable impact. In two hours, complaints from residents spiked. Wind gusting up to 35 miles an hour pushed drifts back onto roads. As residents dug out cars, they shoveled snow onto pavement that had been cleared. And the temperature plunged to 15 degrees, freezing snow solid.
The break wasn’t optional, city officials said, because safety necessitated giving drivers a few hours to rest. “We didn’t want anybody to get hurt,” said Elmo Baldassari, the deputy public works commissioner who has overseen Boston’s snow removal for a decade.
During the break Saturday night, drivers retreated to public works yards, where cots and hot coffee waited. A handful of city-owned plows continued pushing snow off Washington Street, Dorchester and Hyde Park avenues, and other major thoroughfares.
When the army redeployed after 9 p.m. Saturday, smaller equipment struggled. Many of Boston’s old, narrow streets are squeezed on both sides by parked cars. That leaves only enough space for a seven-foot plow blade on a regular pickup truck, a vehicle outmatched by the mass of snow that had fallen.
At least 21 trucks and other pieces of equipment got stuck and 49 more broke down that night, according to the city. The backhoes and front-end loaders began to take over.
“You’re there essentially with a shovel,” Baldassari said, noting that it took a backhoe five hours to clear Tower Street, a block-long dead end in Jamaica Plain. “It’s not that we weren’t there. It just takes time to open these streets up a bucket at a time.”
Later this month, the Menino administration expects to complete its own assessment of the storm response. In a preliminary analysis, city officials flagged areas that appeared to be problems. In Roslindale, a plow got stuck for more than 90 minutes on Arborough Road. Other equipment had to be diverted, and snow piled up so quickly the street had to be cleared with a backhoe.
City Councilor Charles C. Yancey said he found two dozen streets that remained impassable 24 hours after the storm. “I feel really responsible as an elected official. We let the public down,” Yancey said, adding, “I’m not blaming DPW workers.”
Yancey called for a hearing at City Hall, which had been scheduled for March 4 but was postponed. Councilor Salvatore LaMattina, chairman of the committee with oversight of plowing, said he wanted to wait until the Menino administration concluded its review. LaMattina said main roads were open, but he was not happy with side streets in Charlestown, many of which were impassable.
“I could have had a hearing and had people complain, but it wouldn’t have been productive,” LaMattina said. “I’m looking for long-term solutions.”
In the future, the city could deploy plows in waves to avoid the need for a five-hour break. The trade-off, city officials said, would be fewer plows on roads at the height of the storm, when more streets could wind up buried.
The city could also institute parking bans on narrow side roads the way it does on main thoroughfares. Barring cars from even one side of a tight street would make room for larger plows, which are less likely to get stuck. The difficulty would be finding places for residents to park their cars.
Looking back, most residents judged the blizzard response with a simple test: How was my street?
“They did a good job,” said Lisa Lipson, 47, while standing on Mather Street in Dorchester. “I thought this street was very well plowed.”
Around the corner, Lorraine Humphrey offered a starkly different assessment. “It was awful,” said Humphrey, 65, who has lived on Nixon Street for 30 years. “We kept calling and calling, constantly. They kept telling us, ‘Oh, they are on the way.’”
In that corner of Boston, it mattered more than anywhere. The Saturday the snow stopped, flames tore through a three-story apartment house at 49 Mather St. The first call came at 11:54 p.m., and Ladder 6 barreled down Mather, arriving at 11:58 p.m. to heavy fire and people trapped on the third floor.
Engine 18 had broken a chain on its snow tire earlier in the day, and crews made the mistake of rushing up Nixon Street. At midnight, Engine 18 was stuck, and firefighters dragged their hose the last block to the fire.
More engines and ladder trucks arrived at the three-alarm fire. Firefighters rescued a man from an upper floor. In snowstorms, the department always sends extra equipment in case a truck gets stuck.
“Ultimately, it didn’t affect the outcome of the fire,” Boston Fire spokesman Steve MacDonald said. “Companies got water on it pretty quick. Nobody was seriously hurt.”
On the hills of Charlestown, plows cleared Main, Medford, and Bunker Hill streets. But the snow strangled the narrow lanes that crisscross the neighborhood like rungs on a ladder. Sullivan Street became a sledding hill. Russell Street remained impassable, which worried the neighbors and family of James Crowley. The 91-year-old was scheduled to report to Massachusetts General Hospital on Sunday afternoon to have his foot amputated.
“It was cataclysmic,” said Crowley’s daughter, Meg. “The amount of snow. The narrow streets. And sorry to say, but stupid people shoveling their cars out and throwing it in the street.”
Neighbors flooded City Hall with calls for help. Boston paramedics arrived on Sunday with what looked like a yellow sled. Crowley grinned as they laid him flat on his back. Paramedics pulled him through the snow two blocks to a waiting ambulance.
“We had a bloody blizzard,” said Crowley’s neighbor, Denise Cronin, 79. “There’s just no place to put the snow.”
But then, not long after nightfall, “we heard them. It was such a glorious sound to hear the plows coming.”