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N.Y. officer battles ‘apocalyptic conditions’ during Winter Storm Elliott to save family

Lieutenant Patrick McDonald was supposed to go on vacation, but he volunteered to cover a shift near his home instead


Numerous cars were buried under snow in New York following Winter Storm Elliott.

Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes via Associated Press

By Sean Kirst
The Buffalo News, N.Y.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The full scope of it came home to Patrick McDonald on Friday, as he stared through frosted windows at a family trapped inside a stranded car.

For the second time in seven months, a chance scheduling decision placed him at the center of almost untouchable heartbreak in his hometown.

Raised in South Buffalo, he is a lieutenant with the Buffalo Police Department. McDonald was supposed to go on vacation Friday, but he volunteered to cover a shift in A district, close to where he grew up. He realized a storm was coming, and it was going to be bad, but like everyone else in the region, there was no way to totally grasp what that meant, until you felt it.

By midafternoon, he knew. Calls from stranded motorists poured in, and the police themselves were getting stuck trying to help. McDonald, joined by a couple of officers, drove — really, more of a foot-by-foot crawl — to aid people trapped in vehicles on South Park Avenue, near Mineo’s South Pizzeria.

The car McDonald focused on held a family: two grandparents, a mom, a child of maybe 5. They could not get out, doors jammed shut by drifts. McDonald — blinded by piercing wind, even in goggles — tried to push away the snow by hand. In an utter whiteout, he stepped back — and the answer came to him.

McDonald ran to his own house, maybe a block away, and grabbed a shovel, then sprinted back and started digging. He opened the doors enough for everyone to exit and climb into his vehicle — which promptly got impossibly stuck.

They continued on foot. McDonald wrapped his arm around the mother and the little boy, bracing them against hurricane-force winds until they reached the station.

The family, from North Carolina, was going to Niagara Falls. Only the grandfather spoke English, and he told McDonald the travelers had not heard any warnings about the storm, possibly because of the language barrier.

“These were apocalyptic conditions,” McDonald said, thinking of windshield wipers that broke off like twigs in the wind and ice, “and it seemed like anything that could go wrong, did go wrong.”

McDonald is a living touchstone for why Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia described 2022 as a year of “devastation” for the people of Buffalo, as “a year to remember and a year to forget.”

In May, McDonald had planned to go to his little boy’s youth football game on a Saturday, but the child — the day before — twisted his ankle.

Since his kid couldn’t play, McDonald volunteered for a shift on May 14. He was one of the first officers to respond after a confessed racist murderer killed 10 people at Tops Markets on Jefferson Avenue.

McDonald had just climbed out of his patrol vehicle when he saw the killer lower his gun, confronted by police, and it was McDonald — surrounded by images that are seared into his mind — who moved toward the gunman and put on the cuffs. With three fellow officers, he would receive the departmental Medal of Honor.

The only glimmer of light he could find after so much lost that day to raw hatred was an outpouring of civic love for 10 families put through such agony. In a way, McDonald’s pained reflection is similar barely seven months later, after a blizzard of historically lethal intensity.

At a time of extremes, he keeps reminding himself of noble behavior.

“Tops was a nightmare,” he said. “This was a different kind of nightmare. And the only thing you can take out of it, when they’re both done, is how people see the worst and somehow pull together.”

Gramaglia spoke Monday of his gratitude at a departmental response that boiled down to courage and “hard, grinding work.” McDonald offered this example:

A good friend at A District, Lt. Andy Shea, tried to journey Friday, with some officers, to help civilians stranded along Seneca Street. They made a couple of rescues, but the way back was cut off by wind and snow.

McDonald said his friends made it to a city public works building, where they were stuck for 30 hours in a boiler room. Worried sick about an officer trapped near the Skyway, and aided by a civilian heavy equipment operator named Joe Hummel — he needed refuge after helping a husband and wife, eight months pregnant, escape from a trapped car — the group “commandeered” some city plows and backhoes, then burst into the street.

Hummel stuck around the police station for a long time to help out, using a backhoe to dig out patrol vehicles wedged in by snow and drifts, from the blizzard.

“These winds,” McDonald said. “Andy called them the ‘devil’s snow,’ because they snatched the breath right out of your mouth.”

Shea, McDonald said, had good reason to be worried while stuck inside that building. Two officers — Dewayne Raye and Nick Magretta — had been sent to Tifft Street and Ganson Street, to make sure no motorists went anywhere near the Skyway ramps. By late Friday afternoon, McDonald told them to return to the station.

Their vehicles were trapped, and so were they. When Raye radioed that he would walk, McDonald called him and said: Don’t do it. Stay inside your car. Run the engine on and off for warmth, but try not to use all your fuel.

Both officers spent the night in their vehicles. Updates about their situation, over dispatch, caused growing worry throughout the department — especially when an attempted rescue from the south, by Hamburg town police, could not get through.

Raye finally made it out, McDonald said, when he saw a high-lift truck pushing through snow not far away, and managed to reach it. As for Magretta, he had family in the neighborhood. Once the storm relented a bit, he was able to walk far enough to find safety with an uncle.

A civilian, Katie Milks, was handling police dispatch. When she learned Raye was safe, she announced, voice cracking: “Skyway two is home.”

McDonald will remember those words, long after the storm.

The blizzard death toll had climbed by Tuesday to 33, with 28 of those women and men dying in Buffalo. McDonald said it is impossible to describe the sickening frustration when desperate people call for help and there is no way to get to them.

Yet for the second time this year, surrounded again by unimaginable suffering in his city, he tried to look toward a response of selflessness and decency.

The roads in South Buffalo were buried with drifts and cluttered with abandoned vehicles, and McDonald said it was impossible — with traditional equipment — for officers to reach many of those who needed them the most.

Before long, they received unexpected reinforcements. Civilian snowmobilers started arriving, “a wave of these guys from Springville and Gowanda and Fredonia and some places where I don’t even know exactly where they are, like Sherman,” McDonald said.

Snowmobiles could go where police on foot could not, which led to the resolution of many desperate situations. The volunteers also tied plastic markers around mirrors on empty vehicles, so police did not have to check them again for passengers.

There are people alive because of snowmobilers, McDonald said. He has contact numbers for these rescuers in a jumble of notes on his desk, and he hopes to someday find a better way of saying thanks, but for now he will do his best here:

“You look at this, and you’ve got people who were just John Q. Anybody, and they got on their snowmobiles and left their families on Christmas weekend so they could help people they never met, in this storm.”

McDonald also spoke of how his mother, Kathleen McDonald, and some South Buffalo neighbors, Tony and Anne Makowski, took food set aside for Christmas dinners, cooked it and provided it for those stranded at the station. Shea’s mother, he said, sent over a ham. And he said that a couple of neighborhood restaurant owners opened their kitchens simply to provide meals.

At 1:30 a.m. Monday, McDonald formally began a vacation that would last less than a day, when he again chose to go back to work. He walked through deep snow toward his house, where his girlfriend, Christa DiFiglia, opened the door and their dogs ran out to greet him.

McDonald should have been exhausted, but as he settled into the living room — Christmas gifts for his kids under the tree, still waiting to be delivered — his last shift during the blizzard of 2022 ended in the only way that made sense, after this year in Buffalo.

He could not sleep.

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