ST. LOUIS (AP) – The season’s first big wintry storm blustered across the Midwest on Friday and closed in on the Northeast, leaving hundreds of thousands without electricity, stranding airline passengers and burying streets in wet, heavy “heart attack snow.”

The storm was blamed for at least six deaths as it cut a swath from Texas to Michigan, spreading snow and freezing rain and closing schools and businesses.

The East Coast was expected to see rain and thundershowers and high winds by late Friday, with damaging gusts up to 55 mph as the cold front drew near.

Ameren Corp. reported about 520,000 customers without power in Illinois and Missouri on Friday after ice and snow blanketed much of the state, snapping power lines and tree limbs. Ron Zdellar, Ameren vice president, said it would be days before all customers had electricity again.

“We know a lot of people are going to have to leave their homes, probably over the next few days,” he said.

Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt declared a state of emergency and deployed National Guard members to help people in need. More than 200 were to be in the St. Louis area by Saturday morning, and 500 others were available if needed around the state. Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius declared a disaster emergency for 27 counties.

Shelters and warm-up centers opened in the St. Louis area with temperatures expected to drop into the teens.

Two St. Louis police officers escorted 89-year-old Francis Oldani on Friday afternoon to a warming center, where volunteers offered lunch and hot chocolate. Oldani said she lost power Thursday night and called police in desperation Friday morning.

“It was miserable; I was so cold,” Oldani said. “I just had to put on as many clothes as I could. I put a blanket around me and sat in a chair. I guess these people will provide for me. I really don’t know.”

The fire chief in the St. Louis suburb of Affton said an 87-year-old woman died early Friday in a house fire that started after an ice-laden tree limb fell on a power line, causing the fuse box in her basement to short-circuit.

In Chicago, where snow covered street signs and commuters walked gingerly along slushy streets, forecasters warned residents to be careful digging out of what they called “heart attack snow” – difficult to shovel because it is so heavy.

“My daughter had to help my husband dig out the yard so he wouldn’t have a heart attack,” said Judy Siddiqui, as she arrived at work from the suburb of Lombard.

Chicago received 6.2 inches of snow, and many areas of Illinois, Wisconsin and Missouri got more than a foot.

As the storm moved east, strong showers and gusty winds caused even more people to lose power. In Tennessee, 38,000 Knoxville Utilities board customers lost power early Friday at the peak of the outages, and in West Virginia, more than 45,000 customers lost power at least temporarily.

High-wind warnings were issued for virtually all of Ohio, where 60 mph gusts were possible. In the Dayton suburb of Vandalia, wind knocked down power lines and tore siding and shingles off homes.

The combination of sleet, rain and snow made driving treacherous in many areas. In Milwaukee, the slippery roads were too much for vehicle after vehicle – even a snowplow overturned.

Near Paducah, Texas, a sport-utility vehicle carrying a high school girls’ basketball team slid on an icy patch and tipped over, killing a 14-year-old player and injuring six teammates and the coach. The tournament the Paducah High School team was headed to was canceled.

In Missouri, where two storm-related fatal accidents occurred Thursday, officials closed a 50-mile stretch of Interstate 70 for several hours Friday morning. Huge backups remained by late afternoon as tow-truck operators struggled to remove stalled and abandoned cars.

Icy roads were also a factor in two other traffic deaths, one in Kansas on Wednesday and one Thursday in Oklahoma.

At Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, American Airlines canceled all its flights before noon Friday, and United Airlines canceled at least 385 arrivals or departures before 2 p.m.

Nevertheless, the airport didn’t look much different than it does on any other Friday afternoon, suggesting many travelers stayed home.

Mike Crabb of Orlando, Fla., was supposed to fly out of O’Hare after attending a Radiological Society of North America meeting. But he gave up and used his laptop computer to buy a one-way ticket out of Midway Airport.

“Right now you just got to do what you got to do,” said Crabb, who was celebrating his 28th birthday. “I understand things like this happen.”

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