Jessica Sypniewski and boyfriend Samuel Lebron thought they and their two kids would have plenty of time to pick up family in North Tonawanda on Friday morning and make it back to West Seneca before the blizzard began.
They were wrong.
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"It came sooner and heavier than we thought it would," she said. "Being Buffalonians, we had thought, 'Oh, this is just another storm.' "
Wind gusts began getting stronger on the return trip home, forcing them onto side streets, where they eventually found themselves in white-out conditions, trying to find their bearings on GPS. After an hour and a half, they made it into the Target Plaza on Walden Avenue in Cheektowaga. They knocked at a grocery store and asked if they could come inside, but they were turned away. They all began to panic.
Then, they tried Target. Not only did workers at the door welcome them inside, they handed Sypniewski a steaming cup of Starbucks hot cocoa and threw a blanket over her shoulders. Seats and portable heaters were waiting nearby.
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"I got so emotional, I just sat down and started crying," Sypniewski said. "You never know. People could have died. I truly believe they saved lives."
It was just the beginning of two days of round-the-clock hospitality provided by a group of seven Target workers also stranded at the store who, instead of being home with their families for the holidays, would spend the weekend providing about two dozen stranded motorists with comfort and care in one of the worst blizzards in memory.
When it became clear they would be stuck in the closed store overnight, workers filled carts with inflatable mattresses, sheets, pillows and blankets; and told everyone to spread out into the store and "make yourselves a little home," Sypniewski said.
"They said, 'Anything you need, it's on us,' " she said. "'Just let us scan it first.'"
That meant snacks, water, a change of clothes, basic hygiene items, phone chargers – and things to pass the time, such as coloring books and markers. Workers even unwrapped a TV and set it up the next day near the store's Starbucks kiosk so everyone could watch the Buffalo Bills game.
Sypniewski thinks the workers, who went so far above and beyond, deserve raises and bonuses.
"They deserve to be recognized," she said. "They really deserve something for sticking through that entire situation with such a positive attitude."
Workers scraped store windows, which kept icing over, in order to watch for more people in need. They kept coming, even as late as Sunday. The store ended up providing refuge for about 25 people who had been stranded in their cars, including an elderly man and a woman with muscular dystrophy.
On Sunday, the day everyone was finally dug out and rescued, workers opened packages and put together a Christmas meal, complete with mashed potatoes.
Since she's been home, Sypniewski's been getting an unexpected response, she said.
"Everyone says, 'It's my dream to sleep overnight in a store!' " she said.
That could explain why so many people were interested in the story when TikTok user @carlarodxd, who was also stranded at the store, chronicled the event on her TikTok page. Real name Carla Rodriguez, she had been on her way to pick up her mother from the hospital when the weather turned. (Her mother ended up staying at the hospital and was fine.)
Her most popular video was viewed 5.4 million times. It shows her camped out among racks of clothing on an air mattress under a grey quilted blanket with the trendy song "Oh No," by Kreepa, playing over the top.
Another video, which was viewed a quarter of a million times, showed her walking the store's empty aisles as "The Walking Dead" theme song played in the background. Others show her companions peering out snowed-in windows, coloring, eating snacks and, finally, being plowed out by front loaders.
Once she was home, she posted an update to let her many new followers know she'd made it out safely. Several commenters said they had been glued to their phones watching the whole thing unfold.
"Glad you're safe! Your Target saga was the talk of our Christmas dinner in Wisconsin!" wrote TikTok user @xcuyr1258.
Rodriguez gave the workers kudos.
"Considering ourselves lucky thanks to them," she wrote on TikTok.
The people at the store have been criticized for traveling Friday when they knew the storm was coming, and Sypniewski said they can understand why.
"I get it, we shouldn't have been out there. We had plenty of warning," Sypniewski said. "Thankfully, because of these workers, everything turned out OK. And we are so grateful."