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2 children rescued from Buffalo River as 'wicked storm' blew in

Strong, fast-moving thunderstorms rolled through the region Friday, knocking down trees, downing power lines, creating water spouts on Lake Erie and even stranding people on the water.

The weather also set the stage for a dramatic rescue along Buffalo's waterfront.

It began around 12:30 p.m., when the skies darkened as the storm approached the city.

"We were watching the storm and it was like two hours away and was just supposed to be a little sprinkle," said Justin Dahl, manager of BFLO Harbor Kayak. "But it was this tiny cell that was a wicked storm."

And when it arrived, people were still on the water.

“The storm was way too much for anyone to handle," Dahl said.

General Mills employees look at a paddle bike at the side of the Buffalo River near the Michigan Avenue Bridge after two children were rescued Friday. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Here's how Dahl described what happened next:

A woman on a water bike was frantically peddling toward the kayak shack. Two children she was biking with – a boy of about 7, a girl age 12 – were in trouble in the water about 300 yards away.

The chains on the children's water bike had become stuck and they couldn't move them. They panicked and jumped in the river.

Dahl, 39, hopped into a kayak, while Devon Florczak, an employee of Water Bikes of Buffalo, jumped on a water bike. They raced toward the kids.

When the two rescuers reached the youngsters, Dahl helped the boy onto Florczak's water bike.

"I got the girl on my boat and jumped in the water to swim across," Dahl said.

The riderless water bike was found just before 1 p.m. "up against the shore," near the General Mills plant, setting off a search by Buffalo firefighters.

By this time, the two had been rescued and authorities yelled to Dahl to get out of the water.

Members of the Buffalo police Underwater Recovery Team, along with Central District officers, also played a role in rescuing stranded kayakers and others on water bikes.

"There was a whole bunch of people on the water," Dahl said.

"We guided them to shore and then helped them out of the water," said Officer John Kujawa, a member of the recovery team.

Everyone was accounted for, Kujawa said.

He expressed relief that it all worked out for the best.

"Just after the storm blew through, there was a lot of debris starting to float down the river and it could have turned into a real bad situation with kids on the kayaks and other boaters who were scared to death," Kujawa said.

Dahl said he is involved in similar rescues maybe once a year.

“It is our policy to not let minors out without adult supervision, to not let riders in the water and to close down in storms like this," said Lisa Florczak, owner of Water Bikes of Buffalo.

"But the adult left them," Florczak said of the two kids. "The storm came in fast and stronger than expected, and the kids panicked and jumped in.”

Florczak closed the business for the rest of the day out of "an abundance of caution."

Multiple thunderstorms came across Lake Erie and rolled through the Buffalo Niagara region Friday, as a cold air mass from the north clashed with warmer, moist air from the south, explained David Thomas, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

The view of the storm as seen from Thunder Bay/Ridgeway, Ont., looking south over Lake Erie on Aug. 4, 2017. (@j_borowiak/Twitter)

It prompted a severe thunderstorm warning by the Weather Service, which also advised the public to take cover as storms rolled through bringing the potential for high winds and hail more than an inch in diameter.

"I think all of Erie County got some showers and thunderstorms. The most damaging impact was right across the City of Buffalo," Thomas said.

The storm from two weeks ago, when two tornadoes touched down in the Southtowns, was still fresh in people's minds when the skies darkened again on Friday, but damage caused by the wind would be the biggest threat.

Waterspouts were spotted on the lake:

Shortly before 1 p.m., the storm was passing through the East Side of Buffalo headed for Cheektowaga and the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, said meteorologist Dan Kelly.

As the skies darkened, the storm was reminiscent of two weeks ago when two tornadoes touched down in the Southtowns, but this afternoon the risk of a tornado was low, Kelly said. The bigger threat was wind damage caused by the thunderstorm.

There were reports of power lines down and trees that had toppled over.

There was a report of something tangled in power lines causing problems near 21 Fleming St., at the intersection with Metcalfe St.

There was another report of downed trees at 198 Hamburg St., between Mackinaw and Miami, and South Park and Spaulding Street. The Thruway Authority reported an obstruction near Exit 4 of the northbound Niagara section of the Thruway.

People also were forced to duck for cover.

Kendra Dunkleman of Remoleno Street in South Buffalo said she narrowly escaped harm when a large tree that was struck by lightning came crashing down on her car, which was parked in the driveway.

"I had just gotten home and ran inside because of the weather," Dunkleman said.

Barely a minute after she had exited her car, Dunkleman said, she heard a loud crash and looked outside to see a tree had landed on her car. A portion of the downed tree had also fallen onto a neighboring house, damaging the porch and temporarily trapping the occupants inside.

Dunkleman said it was roughly six hours later when city crews responded and removed the tree.

Mayor Byron W. Brown Friday said that he anticipated crews from the city's parks, engineering, and streets and sanitation departments would be working around the clock removing fallen trees, clearing debris and surveying damage from the storm. The city also was using assistance from private tree removal companies.

"Crews are going to be working through the night," Brown said during a news conference in the lobby at City Hall, where he was joined by Public Works Commissioner Steven J. Stepniak and Deputy Commissioner Andrew R. Raab.

"We do ask the public to be patient and be mindful that we are working around the clock. We're trying to work as quickly as possible to bring conditions as close to normal as we possibly can," Brown added.

Watch: Footage from Small Boat Harbor of Friday's wild storm

By 4 p.m. Friday, the mayor said the city had received about 90 calls reporting fallen trees from the storm. Ten traffic signals also were knocked out of commission.

"We're getting more (calls) every minute," said Raab. "We do tend to get another push of calls after people get home from work.

Residents were being advised to call 911 only in the event of an emergency, such as if a tree had fallen onto a house, was blocking vehicular traffic or had pulled down power lines.

"Call 311 if you have a non-emergency tree fall. We have contacted the Citizen Services Office and we'll be monitoring the 311 calls until 7:30 tonight," said Raab.

"We need to make sure there aren't power lines involved with the tree removal so we can get the appropriate crews out. This does take time. We focus primarily in that first stretch on trees that are on houses and blocking traffic. So if you have a tree that's now blocking your sidewalk or driveway, we do not respond to those calls first. We do have to get the trees off the houses and the roads open for vehicles first," he added.

Inspectors also were out in force Friday. Officials said most of the tree damage in the city was reported south of William Street, or in the southern third of the city. However, scattered downed trees were reported throughout the city.

Meanwhile, restaurant staff at Canalside was serving lunch and opening the bar when the ferocious storm rolled in. The sky turned black and blue, said Alex Gaylord, assistant food and beverage manager at The Dish.

"We just got this wave of rain, torrential wind and sand all at once," he said. "Everything was blowing over."

Employees shepherded customers, including one in a wheelchair, into the kitchen for shelter, he said.

Several minutes later, a woman and boy ran down the boardwalk to the restaurant where she told employees that her two grandchildren were on water bikes in the river.

"She was panicking," Gaylord said. "She had no idea where they were."

He radioed his supervisors while the grandmother returned to the water bike rental kiosk and the staff comforted her grandson in the kitchen. Meanwhile, the storm continued to hammer Canalside.

"I've never seen it like that down here before," he said. "It was crazy."

A thunderstorm watch remained in effect until 9 p.m. Friday, before giving way to the lake-effect rain and cooler, fall-like temperatures  forecast for Saturday.

Cleanup continues in S. Buffalo; small-craft advisory issued for Lake Erie

The weather is expected to be more pleasant on Sunday, when temperatures will reach the low to mid-70s.

News staff reporters Lou Michel and Joseph Popiolkowski contributed to this report.

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