'It was like a war zone': Police brave Buffalo blizzard conditions to save stranded motorists
"They went out in the eye of the worst part of the storm to save people, putting their own safety aside," said Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia
By Maki Becker
The Buffalo News
BUFFALO, N.Y. — The patrol car's windshield wipers were on full speed but no match for the blinding snow blasting Buffalo since the morning of Dec. 23 — the first day of the blizzard.
Through their frozen windshield, Buffalo police officers Derek Brennan and Brian Walter could barely make out the outline of the giant high-lift truck leading them through the snow-clogged streets.
"We were just following brake lights," Walter said.
Brennan and Walter were paired with Marc Hurst and Michael Schue, who were in a patrol car behind them.
By the evening of Dec. 23, hundreds of people across Buffalo and the Northtowns were stranded in their cars. Panicked calls inundated the 911 call center from those stuck in their snowed-in vehicles or their worried loved ones.
The officers from the Ferry-Fillmore District were responding to a report of multiple vehicles stuck under the viaduct at Walden Avenue near Sycamore Street.
When they were finally able to get to the spot, they could see a semi truck and also mounds of snow with the faint glow of headlights peeking through.
"It was like a war zone," Hurst said.
The Christmas week blizzard was unlike anything the officers had ever encountered before. Heavy, lake-effect snow, unrelenting winds with hurricane-force gusts and subfreezing temperatures paralyzed the region for 37 hours.
In the blizzard's path, people wound up snowbound in their cars. People trying to walk found themselves disoriented and in danger of frostbite and hypothermia. Tens of thousands of people lost power.
Buffalo's police officers who were on duty at the start of the blizzard would end up working through the course of the storm, with most not going home until sometime on Christmas Day.
"They went out in the eye of the worst part of the storm to save people, putting their own safety aside," said Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia.
Police at the Ferry- Fillmore and Northwest districts shared some of their unforgettable experiences in interviews this month with The Buffalo News. Also, on Thursday, Buffalo police released body camera videos of rescues from the blizzard.
The videos, posted to the department's YouTube channel, give a first-hand view of what the officers faced through the Axon cameras mounted on their chests.
In one video from about 6:30 p.m. Dec. 23, a Buffalo police officer steps out of his patrol car. "Oh my God!" he yells as snow blasts him.
He and his partner were trying to find a woman stranded in her car.
"We're out here looking. Can't find anything," the officer can be heard telling a dispatcher.
"That might be it. Yeah!" the officer says. Two dots of light shone through the snow. The officers run toward what turned out to be a car.
" Buffalo police! Hello?" he said.
The door opened and the woman inside said she'd been stuck and was having chest pains.
"I'm so happy to see you," she said, her voice breaking with emotion.
This video contains profanities.
Another video from 6:43 p.m. Dec. 23 showed an officer on his way to a call about a stranded motorist when he saw a shadowy figure. "Help!" a woman's voice can be heard. He went to her and found a woman wrapped in a shawl.
"Can you take me home?" she asked. He put her in his car.
A video from the night of Dec. 24 showed officers who rescued eight people stranded in a commercial building without electricity near Fuhrmann Boulevard and Ship Canal Parkway.
"Yo, let's go!" Officer Kyma Dickinson yelled.
"Do I have to walk in snow?" one of the people asked.
"You'll be OK. It's not a lot of snow," Dickinson said.
This video contains profanities.
But there was quite a bit of snow — so much that after piling the people into two pickup trucks Dickinson decided to walk ahead of the two trucks with his flashlight to guide the way.
"Are you walking?" a dispatcher can be heard asking.
Dickinson's body cam showed his shadow on the snow-covered road ahead of him.
"I'm only walking them out at Elk Street. I'm going toward Bailey because it's zero visibility. I can see better when I'm out of the vehicle," he responded. "So they're following me as a I walk toward Bailey," he said laughing.
Search and rescue
As the storm raged, calls for help to 911 piled up.
Between Dec. 23 and 27, Buffalo police received 1,235 calls about stranded motorists, 782 for welfare checks, 76 about suspected deaths, 158 for abandoned vehicles and 44 for rescues, according to police data.
With the aim of getting to the people who needed the help most, Gramaglia tasked Chief of Detectives Craig Macy with running all ground operations for search and rescue as well as recovery.
Officers in the five districts worked in teams to go on rescue missions, with a high-lift at each of the five districts and a couple of police cars following.
Members of the underwater recovery and SWAT teams were also brought in to help with rescues. The diver's insulated suits were especially helpful against the cold. After the storm ended, those same teams were tasked with recovering the bodies of the deceased and getting them to the Erie County Medical Examiner's vans, which could not navigate the snow.
All five police district stationhouses turned into warming shelters, where dozens of people turned up and were dropped off after being rescued.
This video contains profanities.
Carrying a newborn
At the viaduct, the officers got out of their patrol cars and found themselves trudging through waist-high snow to get to the cars.
"We were just banging on window to see if anybody's in the cars," Walter said.
A lot of people had abandoned their cars. But others remained.
One car had a family of five inside. When the police arrived, they told the officers: "Oh, we'll wait it out."
But the officers encouraged them to come with them. When they came out of the car, they finally saw just how bad the conditions were.
The officers carried the children as they squeezed as many people as they could into their patrol car.
Hurst carried a newborn baby boy, still wrapped in a hospital blanket, in a carrier to his patrol car — and held the baby in his lap as they went back to the station house.
"He was sound asleep," Hurst said.
With their patrol cars packed with people, they slowly made the way to the stationhouse.
When the officers tried to go back out again they found they couldn't get their cars out of the station lot where snow drifts towered above their heads. They spent the night in the stationhouse with the rescued people, listening to the dispatched calls over the PA system, knowing they couldn't help.
"It was humbling" Hurst said.
Christmas Day rescues
Renee Levy, 64, recounted being stuck in her car in a parking lot. She had gone to work on Dec. 23 because she's an essential worker but her employer let everyone go home early. But as she tried to warm her car she found that the defroster broke. She called 911 repeatedly as did her worried family members.
Eventually she heard a knock on her window. It was Officers Anthony Avolio and Ryan Urbanski.
"They escorted me out of the my vehicle and I had to hold on to them because of the wind."
The drove her to the stationhouse on Hertel Avenue where she remained until Sunday morning.
"They took such wonderful care of us. They walked to the store and got us ramen noodles and cans of spaghetti. They even unlocked the vending machine and said help yourself," she said.
Northwest District Chief Joseph Fahey said Levy's rescue was one of many. Officers Tom Plato and Joseph Stojack went out on a rescue mission on Christmas morning to Grant and Letchworth streets.
"There were two elderly gentleman in a pickup. They had been in the car for 20 hours. They were out of gas for 14 hours," Fahey said. The officers told the chief they asked the men, "Are you OK?' "
The men said: "We're fine. Did the Bills win or not?"
The officers also helped two pregnant women with little to no time to spare. They arrived just as a baby was being born in one case. In another, they found that their patrol car couldn't make it to the mom-to-be. So they parked on a main street, walked to her house and helped her walk to the patrol car and got her to Sister's Hospital just in time.
"It was a very eventful storm," Fahey said.
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