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First responders share their stories from the Blizzard of '22

Members of the Erie County Sheriff's Office describe what it was like to brave the elements while searching for those in need of rescue.

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — It is amazing to look outside and think that just two weeks ago, many parts of Western New York were still snowbound, putting many lives in danger. Luckily, for many people, there were some very dedicated and well-trained people out there to help.

We had the pleasure of meeting a very special team of first responders who put their training to the test and took on the worst hit areas of Erie County. More than 30 Erie County Sheriff deputies, members of the quick reaction force and volunteers from the patrol division, braved everything mother nature could throw their way and rescued dozens of stranded motorists even though at times they couldn't even see the front of their own vehicles. Deputy Chris Lysy described it as simply "chaos."

But this group attacked the chaos head-on, Sgt. Chris Schreiber recalls, "We were out in the late hours of the night, early hours of the morning, in at times zero visibility."

"And for a second, you could stop and look around and the only thing you'd see were from flashing lights on our sled. Everything else was pitch black. No power and I think that's when it really hit how bad it was," Sgt. Don Hoelscher added.

Using four snowmobiles and an all-terrain track vehicle, they made more than 50 saves in the Main-Transit area of Clarence on the first night alone. Over the course of the storm, they hit just about every corner of the hardest hit areas of the county. 

"It was like nothing I'd ever seen," Sgt. Ben Pisa said. 

Deputy Tim Coulombe says they logged a lot of hours and miles on the snowmobiles. 

"We were on the snowmobiles from Cheektowaga, to downtown Buffalo, North Buffalo, the east side of Buffalo, all the way to Amherst and into Clarence. The amount of abandoned snowplows, ambulances, we came across a Buffalo Police vehicle that had to be abandoned and the window was smashed out, it was looted and the door was wide open. You have so many of the people who are out there and they're supposed to be helping you and they're not even able to because of the conditions, you know it's bad," Coulombe said.

"We went sleepless nights, non-stop around the clock, fire, police, EMS, everybody just working together to get the job done," Deputy Gene Nati said. 

Nati even put his own vehicle into service. 

"It's a Dodge diesel truck with a Fisher v-plow. I was able to cut wedges through the snow to have patrol cars follow me and get to people."

And for a lot of these first responders, it is the people that they'll remember. Deputy Kyle Hoffman remembers, "a family from downstate, they had an 18-month-old child and they were trapped in their car for over 24 hours."

Detective Kyle Coniglio came across an out of state family, unprepared for the weather. 

"We had a family from Alabama with 6 kids in it. It was kind of, not upsetting, but putting me in the situation of make sure those kids are alright," Coniglio said.  

Deputy Mike Okal credits planning with potentially saving dozens of lives. 

"We knew in advance it was going to be a very bad storm, so we got all of our machines ready and positioned them around the county so we could respond from various locations." 

Sgt. Edward Krypel echoed those words. 

"If we didn't have all this equipment we wouldn't have been able to do our jobs and save these people who were stuck." 

And Deputy Sal Vaccaro says planning, training, and teamwork paid off.

"Being able to be on the sleds with the guys, working as a team."

Sgt. Jordan Grabar says this is why they train, this is what they do. 

"We're all helpers. I make the joke all the time, I'm a helper bee, it's what I do. I'm a worker bee and a helper bee, and I think all these guys keep that in the back of their mind too. this is what we do." 

And like the Boy Scouts, Deputy Matthew Sirianni says the biggest take away is "always be prepared."

Detective Dan Walczak said that at the very beginning of the storm, the team was told, this is a no fail mission. 

"You only have one option, and that's to do it. So, get it done," Walczak said.

All of these law enforcement professionals also give huge credit to the mutual assistance and coordination they had from other law enforcement agencies, paramedics, fire departments, who all put helping others ahead of everything else.

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