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Accident claims life of man in wheelchair who was a ‘buddy’ to many

Sometimes, it’s the little things you remember.

Michael J. Santillo got a Nutty Buddy Friday night at a Sunoco convenience store in Amherst. He asked for the ice cream to be double-bagged to reduce the chance of it catching behind the wheel of his red, motorized wheelchair.

Clerk Melissa Gerwitz then went around the counter to open the front door for the regular customer, wearing his customary orange bubble jacket.

“I told him to have a good night, and he said ‘Thank you,’” Gerwitz said. “Then the next thing I know, he wasn’t going to be around.”

Santillo, 65, died a few-hundred feet away after being struck by a car on Evans Street near Sheridan Drive. The accident happened about 7:30 p.m., and he was pronounced dead 45 minutes later at nearby Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital.

“Out of everybody who comes in there, he was our favorite customer,” said clerk Nicolas Betlewicz, 19, with co-worker Ryan Miller, 22, in agreement. “He was just the nicest guy in the world. He appreciated us, and we appreciated him. Overall, we were kind of like a little family.”

“I’m just heartbroken,” Betlewicz continued. “If I was having a bad day, he’d ask what was wrong, and make me laugh or smile, or something. He’d brighten up my day.”

“His heart was made of gold,” Miller added. “He was my buddy.”

“Buddy” was the term of endearment Santillo used for both young men.

Santillo stopped at the Sunoco store on his rounds several times a week, after hitting Wegmans first. He would typically buy a pack of Marlboro Lights, a couple cans of Max Ice and reach into the freezer for a Nutty Buddy or an ice cream sandwich.

Santillo grew up in Lockport, and lived in Depew and on Buffalo’s East Side, near the Cheektowaga line, before moving to Amherst in recent years. A cousin in Lockport lost touch with him years ago, and a brother in Florida failed to return a call.

The clerks said Santillo never mentioned family members and always came into the store by himself.

“One woman said she thought he had a wife. Another said they were Wegmans buddies,” Miller said, adding to the mystery. “A third guy said he’d seen him driving around in his wheelchair for the past 10 years. Someone else said he was in a nursing home, or a place for elderly people.”

“He seemed like a loner who just did his own thing,” Gerwitz said. “He was very friendly, very polite and very nice.”

Miller said Santillo – whom he figured to be 5 feet 8 and more than 250 pounds in weight – had a “positive energy vibe” and was the kind of person who “lived life to the fullest and never let that wheelchair stop him.”

He was also the kind of person, Miller said, who had your back and you wanted to have his.

“It kind of feels like losing a big brother,” he said.

Betlewicz was on a break when someone said a man in a wheelchair had just been hit by a car.

“I thought, ‘Please God, may it not be the man who just left the store.’”