By Ben Tsujimoto
The Buffalo News, N.Y.
BUFFALO, N.Y. —The Buffalo Niagara International Airport Fire Department rarely leaves the Cheektowaga airport property. But after a few emergency calls from stranded motorists and a plea for help from Erie County officials during the blizzard that paralyzed Western New York Friday night, the firefighters ventured outside their boundary.
“We quickly realized how many people were stranded,” said fire company Chief Billy Major.
To do so safely meant breaking out a 70,000-pound crash truck, with wheels 4 1/2 feet in diameter and all-wheel drive, Major said. Crash trucks are not typically intended for passengers. They serve as beastly buffers for road construction crews to avoid oncoming traffic.
In the early evening, the crash truck lumbered down Aero Drive and Holtz Road north of the airport to pick up stranded motorists — about five at a time — and deliver them to the firehouse, set back from the street at 120 Amherst Villa Road. U-Crest and Hy-View fire departments provided assistance, too.
The trips back and forth became an adventure, Major said. Maneuvering the crash truck from the cabin is difficult — especially with visibility limited by wind gusts that approached 80 mph in some areas. Backing it up is clunky and awkward.
“You really can’t see well,” Major said. “We had to have firefighters outside guiding the truck so it wouldn’t get stuck.”
After the final trip to the firehouse at about 8 a.m., the crash truck got stuck — meeting the same fate as two-thirds of Erie County emergency vehicles that embarked overnight Friday.
By Saturday afternoon, about 150 people had gathered for warmth and safety between the firehouse, the NFTA police station and the airport terminal.
Major dubbed it “Hotel Buffalo Airport.”
Flights to and from the airport were canceled since early Friday afternoon, and news broke earlier in the day that flights would not resume until at least 11 a.m. Monday.
All three shelters had power, Major said, which provided warmth and outlets for communication. A portion were being shuffled from the firehouse to the terminal for Saturday night, Major added.
Those sheltering come from all walks of life: A 19-year-old celebrated his birthday in the firehouse with a cupcake and a few candles, while a family with four young children took refuge. The police station housed 20 people and a dog — with many walk-ins joining overnight — while terminal workers rolled out makeshift beds for passengers who could not depart before the airport’s closure Friday and about two dozen Transportation Security Administration members.
Major credited his team of firefighters and the NFTA transit police, all of whom had been working for more than 24 hours. He applauded the attitudes of the 150 people who hunkered down at the airport buildings during the holiday weekend.
“They were understanding,” he said.
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