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October Surprise shut down the Buffalo area, shattered trees

Almost 30 years after the Blizzard of '77 put Buffalo on the national weather map for snowstorms, along came another beauty that refreshed that snowy image and gave another generation of Buffalonians something to talk about for years to come.

The year 2006 brought a lot of big stories to our area -- some good, some not so good, some downright ugly. But no single story affected so many as the storm we came to call the October Surprise.

Buffalo News reporters and editors picked the storm as the top local story for 2006.

It was such a big year for news that some big stories missed the Top Ten cut.

Among them: Amherst residents spent the year trying to figure out new supervisor Satish B. Mohan. Thousands of jobs were saved when Delphi spared its Lockport plant. And Buffalo police officers, irked by the control board's refusal to grant an approved raise, went on a ticket writing blitz.

Also missing the cut were Bass Pro's continued floundering for a new Buffalo home, the Albright-Knox's decision to sell off antiquities, British billionaire Bashar Issa's planned renovation of the Statler Building and proposed 40-story office tower.

The Dalai Lama was a big hit on a rare American visit to the University at Buffalo. Steady progress was finally made on restoring the Erie Canal terminus, Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin complex was again made whole with the rebuilding of the pergola, carriage house and purchase of the Gardener's Cottage, and Louis Sullivan's Guarantee Building got a rehab.

The governor approved $100 million in funding for Henry Hobson Richardson's Buffalo Psychiatric Center complex, a Wright-designed boat house is going up next to the West Side Rowing Club, and a never built Wright gas station will be built on Seneca Street.

A couple of quirky stories also missed the list. Kevin Stephan rushed out of the kitchen at a restaurant where he works to give a life-saving Heimlich hug to a nurse named Penny Brown. She had saved his life 10 years earlier at a baseball game.

And after humble grocer Waldemar Kaminiski died at age 88, we learned he gave away millions during his life after making a fortune in the stock market.

> The Top Ten local stories of 2006:

1. The October Surprise

Who expects 22.6 inches of heavy wet snow to fall in a matter of hours in mid-October, as tree leaves were just coming into full color?

No one, and that's why the lake-effect storm was such a surprise.

By nightfall on Oct. 12, the landscape had turned downright eerie as tree limbs bowed under the tremendous weight, small trees and shrubs were bent to the ground, and the snow just kept falling. Throughout the night, frightening cracks were heard as massive tree limbs broke off beloved maples, oaks and sycamores that had withstood generations of past storms.

At daybreak on Friday the 13th -- how fitting -- those in the storm's path awoke to realize the full extent of its freakish damage.

Nearly 400,000 homes were without heat or power, 90 percent of the trees in the hardest hit areas had some kind of damage, and a death toll that would eventually hit 13 slowly began to climb, especially among those using unventilated electrical generators.

Indoor camping it was called, as some went without power for a full week or more. Municipal agencies mobilized to clear tons of debris, a presidential disaster declaration was issued, and millions in federal aid was approved for uninsured losses.

2. Ralph "Bucky" Phillips

With only a few days left to serve in Erie County Correctional Facility last April, a lifetime loser named Ralph "Bucky" Phillips, 44, was worried enough about a past parole violation that he used an industrial can opener on a kitchen roof at the Alden facility and escaped.

Thus began the saga of Bucky Phillips, an eventual five-month-long manhunt that spawned T-shirts and Bucky Burgers but became deadly serious when Phillips shot a state trooper, Sean Brown, after Brown pulled him over in June in Chemung County on a traffic stop.

As numerous Bucky sightings were recorded, hundreds of troopers converged on Phillips' home turf in Chautauqua County. Phillips shot two more two troopers, Joseph A. Longobardo and Donald H. Baker Jr., in August as they staked out a home where the fugitive had been seen. Longobardo died of his wound.

Phillips, who once vowed never to be taken alive, surrendered meekly after he was cornered in September in the thick woods of northwest Pennsylvania. He pleaded guilty and last month was sentenced to life without parole.

3. Bike Path Killer returns

The Oct. 1 discovery of the body of Joan Diver along the Clarence bicycle path was tragic enough on its own, but her killing sent shudders throughout the community after it was discovered that DNA left behind by the killer matched that of the Bike Path Killer.

Now believed to be his 40s or 50s, he had not struck since the 1994 rape of a teenager. With the murder of Diver, a 45-year-old mother of four and wife of a University at Buffalo professor, the Bike Path Killer is now believed responsible for the killing of three women -- Linda Yalem was killed in 1990 on the Ellicott Creek bike path and Majane Mazur in 1992 near railroad tracks in Black Rock. Police say he has raped nine women over the past 20 years.

4. Sister Karen Klimczak murdered

As director of the Bissonette House, a halfway house for parolees, Sister Karen Klimczak worked hard to end senseless violence, including designing hundreds of lawn signs reading "Nonviolence Begins With Me."

She never got a chance to distribute her next group of signs, "I Leave Peace Prints," after she was murdered in her room by a parolee who stole her cell phone to get a fix. Friends took over the project, and hundreds of the signs can be seen throughout the area. Her killer was convicted.

5. Niagara Thruway tolls lifted

Local assemblymen and state senators for years told us why it was impossible to lift the tolls on the Niagara Thruway. But eight months after local businessman Carl Paladino filed suit against the tolls and Gov.-elect Eliot Spitzer came out against them, poof, they disappeared.

6. Buffalo police officers shot

A given in police work is the maxim: There are no routine calls. But that's what it seemed like Dec. 5, when Officers Patricia A. Parete and Carl Andolina answered a call about a fight at a convenience story.

Parete and Andolina, both 41, returned to police duty after they were laid off in a budget crunch, but the similarities end there. He's 6-foot-7, a bear of a man, and she's petite, 5-foot-5 and fit like a gymnast.

After they stopped a teen coming from the store, they said, the teen shot them at point-blank range. Parete is still hospitalized; Andolina is recovering at home. The teen, on probation at the time, faces attempted murder charges.

7. Hospital report is grim

A long-awaited report on ending hospital duplication came out in late November with a bleak prognosis for Millard Fillmore Hospital at Gates Circle and St. Joseph Hospital in Cheektowaga, both recommended for closure. The commission recommended merging Erie County Medical Center with the Kaleida Health System, converting DeGraff Memorial Hospital in North Tonawanda to a long-term care facility and merging Mount St. Mary's Hospital in Lewiston with Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.

8. Sabres a hit on ice

B. Thomas Golisano didn't get to be a billionaire without making smart business decisions. But who thought Golisano was that smart after he bought the Buffalo Sabres out of bankruptcy and then watched as NHL owners ended the season with a lockout? Golisano's smile now is the biggest in HSBC Arena after the Sabres came within a slap shot of beating last season's eventual Stanley Cup winners, the Carolina Hurricanes, and then got off to the best start in the league this season.

9. Byron Brown sworn in

Since Buffalo's first organized government in 1810, there was never a black mayor until last January with the swearing in of Byron W. Brown, a native of Queens who came here as a student at Buffalo State College and stayed. Brown stressed development, zero tolerance on crime and accountability at City Hall. He promptly named H. McCarthy Gipson as the city's first black police commissioner.

10. Thomas Reynolds re-elected

Most years, that headline would get a yawn. But as Reynolds quickly learned after the Mark Foley scandal erupted, this was not most years. Reynolds, as head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, was one of the first GOP House leaders to learn about inappropriate e-mails fellow Rep. Foley had sent to a congressional page. After more-explicit Foley e-mails became public, Reynolds found himself having to explain his failure to act on the first batch. Reynolds eked out a victory over businessman Jack Davis after delivering federal assistance after the October snowstorm.

e-mail: mbeebe@buffnews.com

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