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WINTER ZIPS IN AND ZAPS CENTRAL U.S. WITH LETHAL COLD

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Crippling cold stung the nation's midsection Friday, plunging the mercury below zero in cities from Pennsylvania to Montana and smashing low-temperature records throughout the Midwest, the National Weather Service said.

Forecasters said the relentless deep freeze responsible for at least 48 deaths nationwide in the past week showed no signs of easing Friday on the first full day of winter.Temperatures in Scottsbluff, Neb., slipped to a record 36 degrees below zero, the town's coldest December reading ever reported.

Cleveland dropped to 12 below, tying the record low set in 1872, and Pittsburgh tied its all-time December low of 12 below set on Christmas Day 1983.

Other low-temperature records included: Billings, Mont., 23 below; Goodland, Kansas, 20 below; Sioux City, Iowa, 18 below; Paducah, Ky., 8 below; and Omaha, Neb., 24 below.

In the Midwest, temperatures overnight dipped below zero across much of Ohio, Michigan and Illinois.

Sub-zero temperatures, brisk winds and light snow in Chicago formed a deadly combination that created transportation headaches for commuters and power outages left thousands shivering in the dark without electrical power.

Utilities across Illinois reported heavy use of gas and electricity as homes and businesses struggled to stay warm.

Commonwealth Edison spokesman Bob Berdelle said the utility set a new winter peak load record between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Thursday of 13,295 megawatts. The previous record of 12,452 megawatts was set on Dec. 14.

Bitterly cold temperatures and dangerously low wind chills invaded the mid-Atlantic region overnight. Partly cloudy skies covered Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania, with high winds and temperatures ranging from about 10 below to five above.

A massive arctic high-pressure system blasted extremely cold air into New England early Friday, and blustery winds sent wind-chill factors diving as low as 44 below.

The mercury dropped below zero in northern parts of the region, with Montpelier, Vt., reporting a low of 8.

A massive high-pressure system from Canada chilled most of the South. Temperatures plunged to record lows in several states and forecasters warned of life-threatening wind chills of 14 below at Huntsville, Ala.