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Been dreaming of a white Christmas? Well . . .

Western New York braced for another element in winter's diversified arsenal today -- lake-effect snow -- after a dangerous mix of freezing rain, sleet and icy roads led to three serious accidents and left people slipping and sliding Thursday.

Get ready, Buffalo -- here comes that national spotlight again. We're not talking about Saturday night's Bills game -- although Ralph Wilson Stadium will make a perfect backdrop to showcase the half-foot or more of snow expected to fly this afternoon through Saturday.

Thursday's mixed precipitation caused several slip-and-falls on the ice, snarled traffic and plenty of accidents, ranging from minor fender benders to more serious accidents.

The three most serious accidents, in Niagara County and Amherst, claimed two lives and left a 3-year-old girl in critical condition Thursday night.

Today's evening rush hour was expected to be anything but fast with heavy lake-effect snows -- fueled by colder air and west-southwest winds -- forecast to drop 6 to 12 inches late today and tonight, according to the National Weather Service.

"The [snow] band is expected to set up north of the city of Buffalo, through the Tonawandas and those areas in the afternoon, and then drift south into Buffalo and its surrounding suburbs during the evening rush hour," meteorologist Tom Niziol said today.

The region is under a lake-effect snow watch beginning this afternoon through late Saturday night.

The snow bands are expected to move into the Southtowns late tonight and Saturday. Up to 8 inches of snow or more could fall in the suburbs south of Buffalo, with 2 to 3 inches expected in the metro area -- on top of the 3 to 6 inches expected by today.

If there was any year to bet on a white Christmas, this might be it.

Temperatures for the first 14 days of December ran below normal, and the Buffalo Niagara International Airport weather station reported 9.4 inches of snow. The season total there is 27.1 inches, which is about 20 percent more snow than normal for this time of year.

At this time last year, the region measured 4.6 inches total for the season, meteorologist David Sage said.

Saturday night's Bills forecast calls for mostly cloudly conditions, with a 50 percent chance of snow showers and a low of about 20 degrees. A west wind between 8 and 14 mph will make the temperature feel like it is in the single digits.

Thursday's wintry mix spelled havoc for many area travelers. Several flights in and out of the Buffalo Niagara International Airport were delayed or canceled because of bad weather elsewhere. Runways remained clear and operational all day Thursday in Buffalo, according to Douglas Hartmayer, airport spokesman.

Area police agencies were busy handling several collisions on ice-coated roadways.

Ice was blamed for a fatal crash on Lockport-Olcott Road in Newfane. Niagara County sheriff's deputies said Scott T. Willett, 22, lost control while driving in the 3300 block just before 4:30 p.m., and his car collided head-on with a school bus. Willett was pronounced dead in Newfane Inter-Community Memorial Hospital. There were no students aboard the bus, and the driver suffered minor injuries.

Amherst police were investigating the cause of a fatal crash at about 7 a.m. Thursday on Campbell Boulevard near Schoelles Road. A tractor-trailer driven by Teofil Pora, 63, of Ohio crossed into the oncoming lane and struck four vehicles -- two of them head-on. Valerie Inman, 35, of Newfane, one of the drivers, died at the scene. Michele Kerr, 23, and Carla Kerr, 22, both of Lockport, the driver and passenger of another vehicle, respectively, were seriously injured and transported to Erie County Medical Center. Their conditions were unavailable.

A 3-year-old girl was fighting for her life late Thursday in Women and Children's Hospital after a two-vehicle crash on an icy Lockport Road in Wheatfield, Niagara County sheriff's deputies said.

A woman lost control of her car at about 5 p.m. while westbound on Lockport Road and collided head-on with a delivery truck, deputies said. The toddler, who was in the rear seat, restrained only by a lap belt, was listed in very critical condition late Thursday. The driver was being treated for severe head, foot and hip injuries in Erie County Medical Center. A 17-year-old girl was being treated in Mount St. Mary's Hospital, Lewiston, for a leg injury. Their names were not released.

News Niagara Bureau Reporter Pam Kowalik contributed to this report. e-mail: tpignataro@buffnews.com

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