(CNN) — Christmas was just days away when a blizzard hit Buffalo, New York, bringing the ferocious winds, heavy snow and dangerous cold that had already affected much of the United States.
Then the power went out in nearby Williamsville, leaving Demetrice and Danielle and their four children — Aayden, 8, Aubree, 4, Jordynn, 2, and Judah, 9 months — in freezing cold. it was getting worse fast.
The temperature dropped by 1 to 1.5 degrees Celsius approximately every 10 minutes, Danielle would later recall.
“Conditions were getting worse very quickly,” he said, and since they only had electrical appliances, they couldn’t even turn to the stove for heat.
If they had just been adults, they would have snuggled up that Friday, Danielle told “CNN This Morning.” But of course, in this family there were not only adults.
So Demetrice and Danielle packed the essentials into overnight bags and they all got in the car.
And they started down the highway.
Soon, however, the arctic gust that had already claimed lives as it passed across the country made driving impossible.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Danielle said Monday. “It was like looking at a white cardboard (…). Even the cars, with the lights on, you couldn’t see anything.”
There were no yellow traffic signs.
No orange traffic cones.
Not a single traffic light.
“You had to cross the crossroads praying,” explained the mother.
“A crisis of epic proportions”
The power of this storm, as Danielle was learning, was unlike what Buffalo—hardened for generations by the Lake Erie “snow machine”—was used to.
Soon, electrical substations would freeze over and people here would die, according to Erie County officials. 110 cm of snow would fall. Gov. Kathy Hochul, a native of this region, would call it “a crisis of epic proportions” and the “most devastating storm in Buffalo’s long history.”
But before all that, it was the roads that quickly went from escape routes to icy traps. And in one of them, near a tunnel under the airport runway, were Aayden, Aubree, Jordynn, and baby Judah, along with their parents, trying to find a warm place to stay.
Danielle and Demetrice “tried to stay calm as long as possible” because they didn’t want to “scare the kids,” the mother said.
But the alarms were going off.
Someone else trying to run from the blizzard felt it too.
A report of a motorist having a panic attack in a tunnel under the airfield reached the Buffalo Airport Fire Department, Buffalo Airport Fire Department Deputy Chief Joel Eberth told “CNN This Morning.”
Safe in their warm firehouse, firefighters Mike Carrubba and Mark Wolhfiel, along with Eberth, geared up, according to the latter’s account and a statement from the Niagara Border Transportation Authority.
Then they did what heroes do: they ran out into the deadly storm.
“I promise we won’t let you”
Demetrice and Danielle got stuck at a roundabout near the airport tunnel. In all, more than three dozen commuters — most likely invisible to each other — were there, too, a handful of the nearly 500 motorists who were stuck Friday night through Saturday on Erie County roadways.
“It took us a long time to get out,” Eberth said, referring to the airport tunnel site.
The one belonging to Danielle and Demetrice’s family was one of the first vehicles rescuers arrived at.
As Carrubba approached her window, Demetrice flung it open.
“Please don’t leave us,” the father implored.
“Don’t worry, man,” the firefighter replied, remembering the exchange. “I promise you we won’t leave them.”
But the rescue could not start immediately.
Carrubba headed into the tunnel, where up to 30 motorists were trapped at the other end.
They all needed to get out.
It had to be planned.
In the tunnel shelter, the rescuers formed a convoy: trucks in front, SUVs behind, with Carrubba at the tail—not far from Demetrice, Danielle, and their children—on foot to lead the way and make sure no one was left behind, they said. he explained to CNN on Monday.
At last the slow movement to safety began.
Those who were in the lead approached the fire station.
But about 12 meters storm in, the rear half had to stop.
They just didn’t get it.
‘I will never leave them’
Visibility was zero, Carrubba said, and the snow was 5 feet deep.
Demetrice begged the fireman again: “Please don’t leave us.”
“I will never leave them,” he remembers promising her in return.
As the father fretted, Carrubba changed his disaster plan.
“The time for the alarm had arrived,” he said.
He called another agency and told them they needed an SUV.
“We’ll go as soon as we can,” they said, Carrubba recalled.
Another 45 minutes passed.
Finally, with the aid truck already in place, the convoy resumed its journey back to the fire station, a beacon that remained safe in the midst of the storm.
A Second Critical Mission: Magic
Aayden, Aubree, Jordynn and Judah, along with their parents and 36 other people, were brought to safety that day, the transportation authority said.
As the only small children rescued, his family was able to spend Christmas Eve at the firehouse.
There, the eldest of the brothers, who never wavered in believing in the magic of these dates, inadvertently sent the firefighters on a second mission, perhaps more important than the rescue that saved him and his family from the epic storm.
Firefighters went hunting around the station and accepted deliveries from other people who worked nearby at parties to gather enough goodies to “make sure Santa Claus paid a visit.”
Sure enough, when the family woke up in the firehouse on Christmas morning, it was just as Aayden had predicted:
“Santa Claus came,” said Demetrice.
During his stay, Aayden also asked if he could wear a real firefighter’s uniform and was even given a department uniform and T-shirt, according to the transportation authority. And he learned how first responders help people in distress.
But it may be the adults for whom the gifts and lessons of this holiday last long beyond this storm.
“It was an amazing experience for our firefighters,” Eberth said, “and it definitely made us better people.”
Demetrice added: “Those guys were amazing at the firehouse. They treated us with nothing but love.”