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Drivers pick up stranded cars without being charged

One by one, they came to the makeshift tow yard in West Seneca, looking for cars abandoned on the Thruway during the lake effect storm last week.

Among them was Chloe Cicero of Kenmore, who spent the past five nights sleeping on a cot in Orchard Park Presbyterian Church after whiteout conditions forced her to leave her car on a Thruway ramp to the 219 northbound.

Robin and Cecelia Mols were there to retrieve son Cai’s car, after he was stranded near the West Seneca exit for 35 hours.

And Adam DeMarie was looking for his Subaru Impreza that he left near the Ridge Road exit not far from his West Seneca home.

About half of the 150 vehicles towed from the Thruway ended up at the yard at 349 Orchard Park Road, with about the same number in the former Appletree Business Park in Cheektowaga, and a smattering of vehicles at the Lackawanna toll barrier.

By Saturday afternoon, the number was down to about 30. Drivers were not charged for either the towing or parking at the lot. They just picked up their keys and drove away.

“People are very grateful," said Darryl Miller, co-owner of Miller’s Collision & Auto. “It makes you feel good that people actually appreciate you. In my line of work, that doesn’t happen very often.”

Miller also was one of the tow truck drivers pulling vehicles off the Thruway during and after the storm, and he understands how people felt marooned and waiting to be rescued.

“People are frustrated because nothing’s happened for 30 hours," he said. “We’re frustrated because it takes us 30 hours to get to them.”

After reaching the vehicles, Miller said it took 20 to 40 minutes to shovel around the cars and the tires sufficiently to tow them out.

In one case, a snow blower – “one of the huge ones from Pennsylvania” -- came upon a car Friday morning that was completely buried. Miller retrieved the car, and fortunately no one was inside.

For Cicero, her nearly weeklong stay at the church began with a ride to visit friends. She got off the highway at Union Road, wound up on Mile Strip road and got stuck on the 219 on-ramp around 10:30 p.m. Monday.

“The snow was unbelievable,” Cicero said.

A call to 911 led to several hour stays in a police station and fire hall, before being taken to the church, where the Red Cross was set up. She was one of 102 people there, she said.

“I definitely panicked for a couple of nights. I was very scared, but I adjusted. Everyone was really gracious,” she added.

While in the lot on Saturday, her mother was on the phone, trying to track down her daughter’s car after it couldn’t be found there.

“I’m talking to Johnny right now, and everyone’s been really nice,” Carly Cicero said as he looked for the car at the Cheektowaga site, any concern overshadowed by the knowledge that her daughter was safe and sound.

Brenda Smith of North Tonawanda was happy to spot her Lexus, which she last saw when she abandoned it on Exit 54 headed east.

Smith and her husband, Scott Smith, both spent 34 hours on the Thruway, although her husband, who was in a separate car, got stuck first and wound up walking about three miles to reach her, Smith said.

She praised her husband’s devotion, and the graciousness of state trooper “D. Slowik,” who drove the couple to a Tim Hortons, where a family member met them.

Dan Gauthier was at the lot to pick up daughter Jennifer Gauthier’s vehicle after she was stranded for 24 hours near the Ridge Road exit.

The Blasdell nurse eventually was taken to a hotel by snowmobile. The Mols were also there to pick up their son’s car that had been left by the West Seneca exit. He had been taken to Sisters of Charity Hospital St. Joseph’s Campus overnight as a precaution, and was now resting comfortably at an uncle’s home in Williamsville.

Miller said he expected the remaining vehicles to be picked up by today. If not, he said they’d be taken to his Lackawanna lot at 1923 Abbott Road. for safekeeping until claimed.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has announced that he is waiving all towing fees for the vehicles – amounting to about $75,000 in waived fees.