It was days before Christmas when the blizzard slammed Buffalo, New York, with the fierce winds, heavy snow and dangerous cold it already had inflicted across much of the United States.
That’s when the power blinked out in nearby Williamsville, leaving Demetrice and Danielle and their four children – Aayden, 8, Aubree, 4, Jordynn, 2, and 9-month-old Judah – in the quickly worsening chill.
The temperature was dropping 2 to 3 degrees every 10 minutes, Danielle later would recall.
“The conditions were deteriorating so fast,” she said, and with only electric appliances, they couldn’t even use the stove for heat.
If it only had been grown-ups, they would have hunkered down Friday, Danielle told “CNN This Morning.” But of course, in this family, it wasn’t only grown-ups.
So, Demetrice and Danielle threw essentials into overnight bags. Everyone packed into their vehicle.
And onto the roads they crept.
Soon, though, the arctic blast that already had claimed lives as it trudged across the country made driving impossible.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Danielle said Monday. “It was like looking at a white piece of construction paper. … Even cars, with their bright lights on, you just couldn’t see anything.”
No yellow traffic signs.
No orange traffic cones.
Not a single stoplight.
“You kind of just had to drive through the intersection, praying,” the mother said.
‘A crisis of epic proportion’
The power of this storm, as Danielle was learning, wasn’t like what Buffalo – hardened over generations by the “snow machine” of Lake Erie – was used to.
Soon, electricity substations would freeze and people here would die, according to Erie County officials. Forty-three inches of snow would fall. The governor – a daughter of this region – would call it “a crisis of epic proportion” and the “most devastating storm in Buffalo’s long, storied history.”
But before all that, it was the roads swiftly morphing from escape routes into icy traps. And along one of them, near a tunnel under the airport runway, were Aayden, Aubree, Jordynn and baby Judah, along with their parents – just trying to find someplace warm to stay.
Danielle and Demetrice “tried to keep it together for as long as possible because we didn’t want to frighten the kids,” the mother said.
But alarm was setting in.
Someone else trying to flee the whiteout felt it, too.
A report of a motorist having a panic attack in a tunnel under the airfield came into the Buffalo Airport Fire Fighters, Assistant Chief Buffalo Airport Fire Department Joel Eberth later told “CNN This Morning.”
Safe in their warm firehouse, firefighters Mike Carrubba and Mark Wolhfiel, with Eberth got geared up, according to the latter and a Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority statement.
Then, they did what heroes do:
They rushed out into the deadly storm.
‘I promise we won’t leave you’
Demetrice and Danielle had gotten stuck in a roundabout near the airport tunnel. In all, more than three dozen travelers – most likely invisible to each other – were out there, too, a handful of the 500 or so motorists who got trapped Friday night into Saturday on Erie County roads.
“It took us a long time to get out there,” Eberth said of the airport tunnel spot.
Danielle and Demetrice family’s was one of the first vehicles the rescuers reached.
When Carrubba approached his window, Demetrice cracked it open.
“Please don’t leave us,” the father implored.
“Don’t worry, man,” the firefighter replied, recalling the exchange. “I promise we won’t leave you.”
But the rescue couldn’t begin right away.
Carrubba trudged into the tunnel, where up to 30 motorists were stuck on the other end.
They all needed to get out.
Planning would be required.
Within the tunnel’s safe haven, the rescuers set up a convoy: pickups in front, SUVs in back, with Carrubba at the tail – not far from Demetrice, Danielle and their kids – on foot to guide the trek and ensure no one got left behind, he told CNN on Monday.
The slow creep to safety finally got underway.
Those at the front inched toward the firehouse.
But some 40 feet out into the storm, the back half had to stop.
They just couldn’t make it.
‘I’ll never leave ya’
Visibility was zero, Carrubba said, with snow drifts piled as high as 5 feet.
Demetrice again beseeched the firefighter: “Just please don’t leave us.”
“I’ll never leave ya,” he recalled promising in return.
As the stranded dad fretted, Carrubba shifted his disaster plan.
“It was time for an audible,” he said.
A call went out to another agency: We could use an off-road vehicle.
“We’ll be right over as fast as we can,” they said, Carrubba recalled.
Another 45 minutes passed.
Finally, with the hardened helper truck now in place, the convoy renewed its crawl back to the firehouse – a beacon, still safe and warm in the throes of the storm.
A second, critical mission: Magic
Aayden, Aubree, Jordynn and Judah – along with their parents and 36 others – were all spirited to safety that day, the transportation authority said.
As the only young children among those rescued, their family got to spend Christmas Eve at the firehouse.
There, the eldest sibling – never wavering in his belief in the season’s magic – unwittingly sent firefighters on a second mission, this one perhaps even more critical than the rescue that saved him and his family from the epic storm.
The firefighters went hunting around the firehouse and taking deliveries from others working nearby on the holiday to collect enough goodies to “make sure Santa paid a visit.”
Indeed, when the family awoke in the firehouse on Christmas morning, it was just as Aayden had predicted:
“Santa came,” Demetrice said.
During their stay, Aayden also asked if he could wear a real firefighter uniform and even got a uniform and a department T-shirt, the transportation authority said. And he learned about how first responders dispatch to help people in danger.
But it might be the grown-ups for whom the holiday’s gifts and lessons will endure far beyond this storm.
“It was an amazing experience for our firefighters,” Eberth said, “and it definitely made us better people.”
Added Demetrice: “Those guys were amazing at the firehouse. They treated us with nothing but love.”