It took a few days for Thera Sanchez to process her holiday weekend before she felt able to describe it.
After all, she and partner Pavel Belov hadn't expected events to unfold quite as they did since the unrelenting storm blew in Friday and hovered over their Oakfield residence and nearby roadways. While they remained at home, hundreds of motorists were trying to navigate unknown territory after being moved off the Thruway Friday.
Without knowledge of what they were driving into, many of those motorists got stuck in piles of windblown snow with little to no visibility of what surrounded them. Around 7:30 p.m., the couple noticed two sets of headlights out on the road, Sanchez said.
"We kept checking to see if we could see them until about 10 p.m. We got dressed up in our hunting gear and went to help them. The moment we stepped off of the porch, the snow was stinging my face. I put my glasses on to keep the snow away from my eyes, but the air was so cold it was hard to keep them open," she said. "Both of us, with flashlights and shovels in our hands, we find the road. We walk towards the headlights. We see the two. Then I saw three. Then I saw four. There were seven. We went up to each one and invited all into our home."
By last count, they had 11 strangers in their house. A friend stayed in her car because she had two dogs with her, and the Belov-Sanchez couple has three dogs of their own, she said. She and Pavel brought her food, treats and water and kept a check on her throughout the weekend.
Meanwhile, others just celebrated getting out of their vehicles.
"Some cried and some were just so happy to stand. We had friends from India, the Philippines, South Carolina, Maryland, and a couple were local. Whether they were heading home or to family Christmas, their trip was longer than expected. They were stranded," Sanchez said. "There was one guy who was in deep trouble. We almost didn't see his white van in the snow, but Pavel did, and went back for him. He had run out of gas and was sitting there for five hours in the cold, with just a hoodie, sweatpants and slippers on."
Their guests stayed with them untill Sunday morning, when roads had been cleaned and Storm Elliott finally retreated from the area. As people often do in the face of a crisis, Belov and Sanchez offered hospitality and cared for their guests for the duration. They didn't even feel the toll until it was over, Sanchez said.
"Hosting that many people with the stress of Christmas -- and then the stress of it being canceled -- was intense. Yet, we still had a blast together and toasted on Christmas Eve," she said. "We didn't feel it until everyone was gone. It's been an emotional rollercoaster since."
They weren't the only ones to feel the weight of the situation. What began as a fun trip to see the Bare Naked Ladies ended as an emotional breakdown of relief for traveler Angela Saiz and her passenger.
Saiz, of Rockville, MD, and friend Stephanie Argoe of South Carolina were in Toronto to see the concert last Thursday and had planned to return Friday morning. Flights were canceled due to the storm, so they decided to rent a car and drive.
As hundreds of travelers learned on Friday, their trip on the Thruway would get abruptly cut off when a travel ban was issued and a large portion of the Thruway closed.
“As soon as we crossed the border, conditions changed so quickly,” Saiz said Monday to The Batavian. “I couldn't believe that I didn't get some kind of Amber Alert like I get. Nothing came through on my phone that said travel ban, no driving, seek refuge, nothing.
“My rental car was doing just fine until, it was just, the whiteout hit so quick,” she said.
Their journey had been diverted from the Thruway onto side roads through Genesee County. Saiz was navigating down drift-covered rural roads with patches of visibility until there was nothing to see through her windshield. They got stuck in a snow drift and a good samaritan pulled them out, but by that time, conditions were deteriorating and “it was not safe to drive,” she said.
They called for help at 3:40 p.m. Friday, and Genesee County dispatch told them to hang tight and that someone would be there in a couple of hours. They also called AAA dispatch, which told them no one was allowed to drive into that area.
Meanwhile, the women waited in the car — thankfully with a full tank of gas they estimated would provide heat for at least 24 hours — but without water or food.
Saiz emphasized that she’s no newbie to the world of travel, having been a flight attendant and flying for her career some 200 times a year, and her husband is a commercial landscaper, so she’s also aware of how to deal with snow.
What she wasn’t prepared for, though, were the complete whiteouts and radio silence after two hours turned into several. They were stranded at the corner of Lewiston and Lockport roads.
“Every three hours we would call dispatch just to get an update. My frustration was that communication was horrific. All I wanted was the truth … I just wanted to know, do I need to mentally prepare to be in this car all night?” she said. “About after midnight, all of a sudden, we could see other cars. There was a car next to us, we could see lights and flashers on other cars. You couldn't tell how close or far away they were. And so, finally, we saw two people coming toward us that we thought were emergency workers. And I rolled my window down, and we both started crying. And they said, ‘we live across the street; we're happy to bring you in.’”
The couple, known as Pavel and Thera, said they lived across the street and offered shelter for the two women, who replied that someone was coming for them.
“They’re not coming,” Thera said, explaining that they had been listening to a scanner.
Still, two women going to a stranger’s house seemed daunting, Saiz said, and their nervousness made them a bit hesitant. Then they saw other vehicles emptying out their occupants that were going to the house, so Saiz and Argoe decided to join them.
That Lockport Road couple, Pavel and Thera, offered refuge for 11 people, all of who stayed with them Friday evening throughout Saturday and that night.
There was the couple from Pennsylvania, just 30 minutes away from a cousin they were going to see; newlyweds from Delaware heading to Toronto; and another couple from Dallas, Texas. There was a single man from Spencerport, not even wearing warm clothing or snow boots in lieu of slipper socks, who was trying to get to The Rez. He would have surely frozen to death out there, Saiz said.
They all made the best of it and took in the host’s generous offerings of food, drink and bedding, Saiz said.
“They gave us water, offered us food, I think we were all just a little in shock and grateful to be alive at this point,” she said.
Eventually, firefighters — who were making rescues throughout the weekend and battling the same blinding snow conditions themselves — made it to the house and said they’d return to take people to Oakfield Fire Hall.
They offered to take the stranded travelers’ keys and move their vehicles to Oakfield-Alabama school’s parking lot, which had just been plowed. All of the visitors opted to do that, except for the one woman who remained in her car with her dog.
No one ended up returning that night, and the visitors stayed put.
By Sunday morning, the sky was blue, and the roads seemed clear. But no one had returned with the car keys, Saiz said, so they waited some more.
She had inadvertently left her medication in the car and, after another long period of time, called dispatch again, saying that she really needed her meds.
When Genesee County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Henning showed up, he was a great help, she said.
“He was amazing; he got us to our car, and he cleaned off the windshields for us,” she said.
“I got home at 5 p.m. Sunday,” she said. “My family waited to have Christmas with me. It was quite the experience.
“When I walked into my home and got upstairs, I just wept uncontrollably and sobbed, holding my children, my husband, so incredibly thankful. I'm emotional, just talking about it,” she said. “I've never, ever felt that I might not make it home. I've never been in a situation where I felt that I actually thought I might die. And I felt that way in the car.
“These people were angels and a godsend for bringing us in and feeding us and providing bedding … we had places to sleep. And it was amazing and a miracle. They're good people, and I'm so appreciative, and my family is appreciative of what this couple did,” she said.
Submitted Photo of Thera Sanchez, back row left, and Pavel Belov, back row, right, with Angela Saiz, to the right of Thera, and Stephanie Argoe in front of her holding a dog, along with the other travelers that got a rescue from the Oakfield couple this past weekend.