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State trooper becomes phone counselor to stranded West Seneca resident

Melissa Start just wants to get home. She lives in West Seneca but is currently sacked out with friends in Elma after being stranded on Route 400 for 17 hours Tuesday. She hasn’t seen her apartment or her belongings since early Monday evening.

But she had several angels of mercy who went above the call of duty to help her keep her sanity when she was sure she’d be buried alive, including one compassionate state trooper.

Start got stranded on the 400 after leaving her bartending shift at 2:45 a.m. in downtown Buffalo. With no Thruway signs warning her to keep off, she said, she kept on driving until getting stuck on Route 400 around 3:15 a.m. past the Seneca Street exit.

After repeatedly calling West Seneca Police, who told her to “sit tight,” she called friends who advised her to keep her tailpipe clear and window cracked to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. Those same friends made calls on her behalf and gave her the number for the state police.

That number finally put Start in touch with Trooper Shawn Paa, who works out of the Elma barracks bu on Tuesday was in Clarence. It wasn’t long before Start was calling him every five minutes in the midst of a panic attack.

“He was phenomenal,” she said. “He literally saved my life. He was offering me hope, and telling me Border Patrol was on its way.”

Paa made sure state police dispatchers immediately forwarded her calls to him whenever she rang. And if Start went an hour without speaking to him, Paa gave her a ring to check on her welfare.

At 8 p.m. Tuesday, rescue vehicles finally retrieved Start and another man from Ontario, who joined Start in her car after his car ran low on gas.

Two of Start’s friends from Elma, who own snowmobiles, finally retrieved her from a local fire station where about 20 other stranded passengers were offered water and doughnuts.

She remains in Elma while her rescuing snowmobilers, Dan Gilbert and Dan Kimpton, head out early each morning after four or five hours of sleep to help out other storm victims in need.

“I’ve had amazing people help me,” she said.