The Decisions Facing Those Trapped in the Buffalo Blizzard

From a Wall Street Journal story by Douglas Belkin headlined “The Impossible Decisions That Faced Those Trapped in the Buffalo Blizzard”:

Abdul Sharifu left his house in Buffalo, N.Y., to go to the market to buy milk for his two young children. He hadn’t gotten far when his car got stuck in one of the deadliest blizzards in the history of the city.

Mr. Sharifu, a 26-year-old refugee from Congo, sat in his Toyota RAV4 with a dwindling supply of gas in his tank and called a friend to explain his plight, said Erieckson Kiza, a leader in the Congolese community. Mr. Sharifu, clad only in a thin tracksuit, told the friend he feared he would freeze when his gas ran out and the heat cut off. Waiting at home for his return was his wife who was nine months pregnant.

Mr. Sharifu had two options, Mr. Kiza said: wait for help or make a dash to shelter.

He chose the latter. Several hours later, he was found facedown in the snow, alive but barely breathing, Mr. Kiza said. He was pronounced dead a few hours later.

Close to his car were a police station and train station, as well as several buildings.

“I don’t know why he didn’t go in there,” Mr. Kiza said.

The once-in-a-generation storm that slammed the Buffalo region arrived with such speed and ferocity that it left almost no room for human error.

For many, the consequence of small decisions—such as whether to stay or leave a car, pack a blanket or charge a phone—mounted fast, placing dozens of drivers and pedestrians, such as Mr. Sharifu, in the grip of life and death circumstances. Many, it turns out, were without the resources or preparation to manage them.

Under weather conditions as extreme as those during the blizzard, a healthy, moderately fit adult in typical winter gear might have 20 or 30 minutes before losing the ability to keep moving, said retired Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield. And in such conditions, he said, it is easy to become disoriented or lost; the ability to make clear, rational decisions can degrade quickly.

“Then it becomes a crapshoot,” said Mr. Whitfield.

As of Thursday, 39 people had been declared dead as a result of the storm. Seventeen were found outside, four in vehicles. Officials believe the death toll is likely to climb as more cars are dug out of snow drifts, some of which reached 10 feet high.

For those stuck on the roads, a decision to venture away from a stuck vehicle carried grave risk.

But staying in a stalled car brought risks of its own.

Anndel Nicole Taylor, 22, was driving home from her job as an assistant at a nursing home Friday afternoon when her 2004 Nissan Altima got stuck in the snow, said her mother, Wanda Brown Steele.

Ms. Taylor called emergency services, but her mother said help never came. She was wearing light blue scrubs and Crocs and didn’t have warm clothes with her.

Ms. Taylor got in touch with her sisters on a group chat and posted a video to Facebook of the view from her car as she rolled down the ice-covered window, her mother said. A van with hazard lights blinking was a few feet away.

A few hours later, Ms. Taylor told her sisters she planned to stay in her car until it ran out of gas and then, if help hadn’t arrived, she would try to make it to shelter, said Ms. Steele.

She never got the chance. She died of carbon monoxide poisoning when her exhaust tailpipe became obstructed by mounting snow, Ms. Steele said. Ms. Steele said her daughter was found reclining in the driver’s seat with her arms crossed over her chest and her feet on the dashboard.

“The carbon dioxide made her go to sleep, and she never woke up,” Ms. Steele said.

Garret Cleversley, a volunteer fire chief of Crittenden, about 20 miles outside of Buffalo, who helped with rescue efforts, said some people had ignored the driving ban, which went into effect at 9:30 a.m. on Friday. By 10 a.m., whiteout conditions had blanketed the area and collisions were becoming commonplace, snarling traffic, blocking roads and paralyzing first responders.

Erie County Deputy Sheriff Gene Nati, 48, said that during the height of the storm, he couldn’t see the end of the hood of his patrol car. His partner, who was driving, stuck his head out the window to see and received a burn across his face, later discovered to be frostbite. Mr. Nati said they repeatedly lost their bearings and ended up driving off the road.

Dispatch sent them in search of stuck cars occupied by people who had reported they were running low on fuel and needed help. Many of the cars they reached were empty when they arrived.

Some people, such as Ms. Taylor and Mr. Sharifu, died or were found not far from buildings that were closed but had heat and power inside.

Others who survived the storm seemed to get by with a bit of ingenuity—and more than a bit of apparent good fortune.

Jay Withey, a 27-year-old mechanic, said he headed into Buffalo on Friday afternoon after a friend called to tell him he was stuck in the snow and needed help.

Mr. Withey got stuck himself. As night fell and he realized he was in danger, he said he knocked on the doors of about 10 homes and asked if could sleep on the floor until the blizzard passed. He said he offered residents the $500 in his wallet, but no one let him stay.

He returned to his truck and ran the engine intermittently. A few hours later, Mary Ross, a housekeeper at a hospital whose nearby van was stuck in the snow, knocked on his window. Her van was running low on gas. Could she join him?

“He said come on in,” Ms. Ross said.

As dawn approached and his fuel levels were dropping, Mr. Withey trudged over to a nearby Chevy Equinox half-buried in snow and knocked on the driver’s window. Antonio DeAmillio, 55, was sitting inside. He had gotten stuck driving to meet his wife at her work. Mr. DeAmillio, an officer for the Department of Homeland Security, was also running out of gas and considering his options.

“I thought to myself that when the gas runs out in all these vehicles we’re all dead,” he said.

When Mr. Withey explained his plan to venture out, Mr. DeAmillio agreed to go with him.

The two trudged through waist-deep snow to a nearby school. With a set of brake pads from his truck, Mr. Withey smashed a window and they climbed in, both men said.

The men brought Ms. Ross to the school. They knocked on the windows of nearby cars and helped shepherd others to the school.

Addie Johnson, 72, and her son DeMario, 50, were nearby with their dog in a Toyota Highlander. They had been on the way to visit DeMario’s son when they got stuck around 4:30 p.m. on Friday. They spent the night running the engine and praying. When the battery died, Ms. Johnson said she asked God for help.

Around 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Mr. Withey knocked on their window and helped her to the school while DeMario carried the dog. Mr. Withey was the answer to her prayers, said Ms. Johnson.

Inside the school, Mr. Withey and Mr. DeAmillio broke the lock on the cafeteria door and pulled out apples, cereal and milk. They found blankets from the nurses station. They walked across the street to homes that had lost power, and some of those residents joined them in the school.

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