Motorists rescued, fed, kept warm during travel on Friday
Michael Santaferrara got up early Friday morning to drive from Cazenovia to see his sisters in the western part of the state. He thought all was well while after driving about 140 miles on the Thruway.
“Then they closed it because of all the crashes,” the New York City visitor told The Batavian Friday night. “Once I left the Thruway, my whole world changed. Within seconds, I felt like I was in the Arctic. It was a complete whiteout. I was driving five miles an hour looking for what I was hoping was a road.”
By the volume of 911 calls and observations of emergency responders out there, Santaferrara was not alone.
He was, though, perhaps one of the luckier ones. After pulling off the Thruway and onto rural side roads — he described as “just like going from one white canvas to the next” — he arrived at the intersection near Pembroke Central School. Oakfield firefighters were on scene directing and assisting traffic.
Santaferrara was asked where he was headed to, and he replied, “Lewiston,” which prompted a tepid response to attempt it at his own risk. There had been many accidents and vehicles off the road by that point, and emergency responders weren’t encouraging anyone to be driving if possible.
He asked where he could go to just get off the road for a while, and they directed him to the Oakfield fire hall. That wasn’t as easy as it sounded. En route, Santaferrara encountered a few different detours caused by accidents, and coupled with whiteout conditions, he was just hoping to find his destination.
“I just looked down the road and saw all white. It was a pure whiteout,” he said, after driving a bit farther down the road and pulling into a driveway. “I was tempted to knock on the door. I went back to the intersection, and they were all gone.”
He put Oakfield Fire Station into his phone and finally arrived to safety. Well, sort of. He was in the general area but could not even see the building. He tried opening and knocking on doors along parts of the facility before finding the right entryway. And there they were, others who were rescued and a group of firefighters taking care of them.
“They had already saved a family with a baby and a dog,” Santaferrara said. “They fed us all and gave us towels to dry ourselves, and we just hung out there, kept warm, and then they drove us to a hotel they recommended.”
There was also a couple traveling from Connecticut and yet another pair trying to drive to Canada. Although he had grown up in Syracuse, Santaferrara has lived in NYC for nearly four decades, he said.
“This is winter amplified,” he said, adding that his sisters offered to come and get him. "I said, ‘no way I am letting you come to get me.’ I was in it; I could see what I was going through. The 100 percent opacity … It’s the worst I’ve ever experienced in my life.”
Despite the dicey trip, Santaferrara was thankful for towels to dry off his snow-covered face, body and hands; for the comforting nourishment of grilled cheese sandwiches and beverages; and for the genuine kindness from the firefighters themselves.
“They were really hospitable, warm, and really welcoming,” he said. “I literally thought I would be stranded in it … in the middle of nowhere. I never had my fingers and face freeze that fast.”
Oakfield Fire Hall served as a warming station for the storm, firefighter Bill Sturgeon said. He agreed that it's been one of the worst storms ever -- and that's during his 32-year career as a firefighter. He transported folks to a hotel in Batavia when needed.
"It has to be among the top one to two storms I've ever been through ... visibility-wise. There had to be 15 to 20 cars off the road between Fisher Road and the village line. I felt bad, but I couldn't stop," Sturgeon said later Friday night. "We have more people that were brought into the fire hall. The captain was driving home and saw a couple and picked them up; one had asthma. But an ambulance crew was here to help."
(See a personal account about driving in the storm.)
There were several helpers, including those from unexpected places. When Santaferrara walked into the fire hall, there was a goosebump moment: the contact page of his late mom and dad popped up on his phone.
“That made you feel like they were looking after you,” he said.
His luck continued when he got the last available room at a city hotel, he said. With his trail mix snack running low, he was ready to stay put nonetheless until it was deemed safe to travel. His vehicle remains at the fire hall, and firefighters have offered to pick him up and bring him back to the station when that moment comes.
“I feel incredibly grateful,” he said.
Top Photo: Members of Oakfield Fire Rescue during a brief lull from rescuing motorists stranded in the wintry conditions Friday in Genesee County; the truck ready for action, above. Photos submitted by Michael Santaferrara, who was taken to a Batavia hotel after getting stuck in white-outs while enroute to Lewiston.