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Churchgoers pray for safety of police and escapees in Friendship, a small town with a deep history

FRIENDSHIP – Pat Kupiec of Friendship slept in her living room chair last night behind a deadbolted door.

“Slept” may be the wrong word. Every time she would start to drift off, she imagined hearing gun shots outside. Between the frightening dreams and the sound of sirens outside, she barely got any rest and eventually opted to work word search puzzles instead.

“I just did not feel safe last night,” said Kupiec, who lives alone. “I was afraid they were going to break my window or something. They’re not nice people, and I think they’re going to do whatever they have to do.”

Sunday brought the sound of helicopters overhead.

This quiet rural town of some 2,000 people became ground zero over the weekend as the latest search area for escaped killers Richard Matt and David Sweat. State troopers set up a command center at the Friendship Fire Department.

Allegany County is largely forested, more than 1,000 square miles in an area with just 48,000 residents.

It is a popular hunting area, and residents say some hunting cabins in the search area are abandoned or unoccupied.

State Police and other law enforcement agencies were drawn to Friendship on Saturday afternoon, when two men fitting the descriptions of the escaped prisoners were seen near railroad tracks.

The community of Friendship is celebrating its 200th anniversary this summer. Originally known as Bloody Corners, it was settled primarily by New Englanders when the area was a frontier. The town’s name of Friendship was adopted to mark the resolution of earlier conflicts, according to the town’s history website.

The town is surrounded by large hills in a wide valley that runs west to east. The center of the town is located on Van Campen Creek, a tributary of the Genesee River.

While fresh troopers set up checkpoints on the main roads Sunday morning, headed into the forest on ATVs and peered down from helicopters as they searched for two escaped killers, residents of this rural community went to church and prayed for the safety of the police – and the escapees.

“We certainly prayed for the law enforcement officers, the people of the community and also the convicts themselves, because they are God’s children as well,” said the Rev. Timothy M. Gleason, pastor of Friendship United Methodist Church, after the morning service.

“From the pulpit, I reassured people that God is in control of the situation,” he added.

Outside the church, troopers set up a checkpoint at the intersection of Main and Depot streets, the town center’s only traffic signal blinking yellow light above them.

At the checkpoint, troopers stopped cars, chatted and sometimes laughed with drivers, and occasionally asked that drivers pop open their trunks. Each time that happened, a trooper put a hand on his holstered service weapon. Police lifted the road blocks late Sunday afternoon.

Most town residents seemed to take the search for Matt and Sweat in stride. Children rode their bicycles in the town center. American flags were draped from the light standards along Main Street. Many people attended church services.

“Residents are anxious but not panicking, and they are attempting to go on with their lives, but with a heightened sense of vigilance,” Gleason said.

T.C. Diner, the only restaurant open in the town center, was packed with residents.

Don and Arlene Frisbee of Olean, who were in town visiting relatives, emerged from the diner and watched the friendly chatter at the trooper checkpoint.

“If those guys are here, they picked the wrong town,” Don Frisbee said. “Everyone has all-terrain vehicles, and they’re armed to the teeth.”

Some residents doubted that the escapees are in the area.

“The search has got to be done," said Bill Barnes of Friendship while waiting to pass a checkpoint. “I have my doubts they are in the area. But you never know.”

Jason Norton of Angelica described the presence of strong police as presenting a gridlock for residents being able to get around the area.

“It’s chaos," he said. “This is the second day of it.”

Megan Coen of Angelica said, “I don’t think they are down here. It’s probably a couple of drunks that were making a scene on the railroad tracks.”

email: lmichel@buffnews.com and schristmann@buffnews.com