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'77 BLIZZARD LEFT PILE OF MEMORIES WNYERS LOOK BACK AT FURY, HEROISM THAT MARKED STORM

Today is the 13th anniversary of the "Blizzard of '77."

It blew in from Lake Erie shortly before noon on Jan. 28, 1977, a Friday. It packed peak winds of 69 miles an hour, with an accompanying wind-chill factor of 50 degrees below zero.

It killed seven people and stranded thousands. The Red Cross, alone, fed 70,000 refugees.

It dumped a foot of snow on top of the 2 feet that was already on the ground and thenwhipped it into drifts as high as 20 feet. It raged for 36 hours.

President Jimmy Carter declared it a national disaster and sent in troops from Fort Bragg, N.C., to shovel us out. Toronto sent in its state-of-the-art snow melters and crews to man them.

Today, 13 years later, the Blizzard of '77 -- like Pearl Harbor Day, the death of President Franklin Roosevelt, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy -- is a date by which a generation measures time.

A special Blizzard Edition of The Buffalo News was published the next day, and it serves as a permanent reminder to those who experienced its fury of where they were and what happened to them on the day the Blizzard of '77 belted Buffalo. We caught up with some of them recently and found that they still have vivid recollections of it.

Don and Cindi Toy of East Aurora had set out that afternoon for Sisters Hospital in Buffalo and gotten bogged down on Bowen Road, Elma, when their truck stalled in a snowbank.

Volunteer firefighters from Elma, East Aurora, and Jamison rescued the couple as they tried to make their way along Bowen Road and returned them to their home.

At 11:13 that night, Mrs. Toy gave birth to a son, Brennen Jeffery, who will celebrate his 13th birthday today.

"He's a typical boy," his mother said, noting that he is a permanent reminder of a day in her life when she felt helpless and even frightened.

"What I remember most about that day was walking along the road. I was holding my husband's hand, and I couldn't even see him because of the blowing snow. That was scary," she said.

Buffalo Police Lt. William McLean, then the director of the department's training academy at Police Headquarters and now retired, was in charge of 150 refugees who had taken shelter in the building.

"Some were crying, all of them were very anxious," he recalled. "We had a movie projector and some old training films, so we showed them.

"Then we came up with an episode of a TV series called 'Naked City.' We showed it, complete with a Raleigh cigarette commercial. I remember it starred John McIntire," he said.

At some point during the night while the refugees dozed, he and Inspector Fred Platek became aware that every single police car in the city had been bogged down by the snow.

"It frightened us to think there was no police protection, but it also gave us a feeling of how awesome nature could be," he said.

The next morning, McLean remembered scraping a window and looking at the parking lot where the Buffalo Hilton now stands. What he saw and did not see remains today as his most vivid memory of the Blizzard of '77.

"It was filled with cars when I came to work on Friday but not a single one of them was visible on that Saturday morning. They were all buried. It was as if they had just disappeared. Never in my life have I ever seen a storm like that," he said.

Police protection resumed during the night with the help of four-wheel-drive vehicles loaned to the department and driven by their owners.

Officer Raul Russi, now on leave, answered a medical emergency call on the West Side. With the help of the owner of the vehicle, Russi was able to tunnel into the house where the owner had just died of an apparent heart attack. When he offered to take his wife to a shelter, she told him, "I can't leave him. We've been together too long." And so she remained at his side.

In Sardinia that afternoon, the Rev. Hubert Reimann, pastor of St. Jude's Church, cleaned out the rectory cupboards to feed about 30 people who had found their way to the church hall. When someone called to ask how things were going, the priest replied, "We'll take care of each other, and we'll get through."

It was a message not unlike hundreds of others that were recorded that night by would-be rescuers.

After his guests were taken to their homes late that night by snowmobilers and had left the building, Father Reimann said he and his little dog, Charlie, suddenly felt lonely.

Charlie died three years ago, and Father Reimann, now "actively retired," lives in Amherst with Charlie II.

"How time flies," he said. "It doesn't seem like 13 years since the blizzard."

Just before the full fury of the storm hit, Ruth Rusiniak of 25 Center Ave., Cheektowaga, was in her kitchen. Sensing what was coming, she whipped up enough soup, goulash, and sandwiches to feed 120 people who would soon find shelter at the Bellevue Volunteer Fire Company.

Earlier this month, Mrs. Rusiniak, still an active member of the department's auxiliary, was still helping to prepare food -- this time for the company's annual installation dinner. But the memories of that night are still very much with her.

The common recollection of Jan. 28, 1977, was of the storm's fury. But in retrospect, it is also about the heroic efforts of a community that, when confronted by disaster, opened its doors and hearts to provide shelter and share what they had with upwards of 100,000 strangers who might otherwise have perished.

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