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The perfect snowstorm recalled Survivors relive the Blizzard of '77

The passing of three decades since the Blizzard of '77 has not melted the memories of Buffalo-area residents who endured the epic weather ordeal.

Several hundred people packed the auditorium of the Buffalo Museum of Science on Sunday afternoon, the 30th anniversary of the onset of the deadly storm, to relive the catastrophic event through a series of speakers.

"I'll never ever forget it. Not a Jan. 28 goes by that I don't flash back to that white, cold hell," said Stephen Andrews, a Buffalo native now living in Florida, who was part of the audience.

Andrews, who suffered severe frostbite to his fingers and toes while trapped in his car on the Skyway by the wind-driven snows, was in Western New York this weekend visiting family.

"I don't usually come up here in January. It makes me nervous. I found myself looking up at the sky this morning, just in case," the storm survivor said.

National Weather Service meteorologist Tom Niziol detailed the paralyzing confluence of bitter cold, sustained hurricane-force winds and deep snow that made possible the worst weather event in Buffalo's history.

"It was truly a recipe for a disaster," said Niziol, as he described the storm that descended on Buffalo the morning of Jan. 28, 1977, and did not relent until Feb. 1.

The first snow-caused federal disaster in the United States, the storm caused $300 million damage and left 29 dead, with unrelenting winds of 70 mph and wind chills of minus-30.

Port Colborne, Ont., writer Erno Rossi, author of "White Death -- The Blizzard of '77," described watching the storm barrel across a frozen Lake Erie on that fateful morning.

"I saw a wall of white on the horizon, like a desert sandstorm, rolling toward me like a tsunami wave," Rossi recalled.

Photos of the polar devastation, many from The Buffalo News archives, filled the auditorium's screen as speakers took the stage. The montage of snapshots depicted houses enveloped in snow with only their chimneys exposed, streets and highways clogged with buried vehicles and pedestrians struggling against the brutally cold winds to find shelter.

"In a big way it defined who we are as Western New Yorkers. We proved to the world how strong and resilient we really are," said moderator Rich Kellman, retired WGRZ-TV news anchor and reporter.

While the blizzard certainly took its toll, Kellman said it also resulted in unexpected friendships and spontaneous acts of heroism by ordinary people that will never be forgotten. Snowmobilers who rescued countless stranded motorists, firefighters who fought through the wall of white and kind neighbors armed with snow shovels and hot coffee are among the accidental heroes.

For Cynthia and Don Toy, of East Aurora, the 30th anniversary of the storm triggers memories of a frightful day with a very happy ending.

Cynthia went into labor just as the blizzard descended. After a failed attempt to drive to Sisters Hospital in Buffalo, the couple abandoned their car near Route 400 and set out on foot to find help.

"We were holding hands so we wouldn't get separated, but I couldn't really see Don through the snow and wind. It was zero visibility," Cynthia said.

Several good Samaritans later, the Toys wound up back at home, where son Brennan made his appearance just after 11 p.m.

"We're very lucky we had all the help we did. It was a very eventful day," Cynthia said as she wrapped up her wild birthing story.

Brennan, who was introduced to the audience by his mom, received a hearty round of applause as he celebrated his 30th birthday.

Rossi, then a teacher, kept tabs on what was unfolding outdoors via his radio, especially the calls from listeners who were reporting their personal situations. He taped hours of the broadcasts and took extensive notes for a disaster survival class he taught. That information, combined with interviews with dozens of blizzard survivors in Western New York and Southern Ontario, eventually became "White Death."

Among the blizzard anecdotes included in the book:

The story of the rabbit hunter who saved himself and his dog by burrowing into a steaming mound of cow manure.

A couple who sheltered a busload of 30 stranded schoolkids for three days, despite having no water or heat in their home.

Two young Ontario boys who huddled in their kitchen for several days, awaiting rescue after the storm blew in the windows of their home and filled it with snow.

And the flock of Canada geese buried in Rossi's front yard as the storm hit, only to pop out of the snow four days later, alive and well.


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