When Route 219 was shut down last week by brutal blizzard conditions, State Park police patrolled 35 miles of the major north-south roadway using the only practical means – snowmobile.
“I guess the best word you could use for it is ‘extreme,’ ” said Sgt. Tom Krawczyk. “The cold and the wind would actually take your breath away.”
Police deployed four Ski-Doo 500 and Yamaha 900 snowmobiles Tuesday and Wednesday along the impassable roadway to aid any stranded motorists who may have disregarded the road closure barricades, said Krawczyk, who led the team that also consisted of Officers Gerald Calmes, Stephen Campbell and Michael Cali, among others.
“We checked to make sure they had no medical conditions, make sure they’re OK and that they’ve called for help,” Krawczyk said. “As long as they give us the thumbs-up on all of those we continue on.”
Officers encountered several disabled motor vehicles, but no motorists they checked on were in distress or needed to be rescued, said Krawczyk, a veteran of the December 2010 effort to rescue thousands of motorists stranded on the Thruway by a storm.
“I think that’s a better story than actually having to rescue somebody,” he said. “Maybe all the warnings got out soon enough. It’s been a coordinated effort well before the storm hit.”
Officers focused primarily on the stretch from the Lackawanna Thruway tolls south to Rice Hill Road in Orchard Park, but also patrolled as far south as Peters Road in Springville. They even checked on vehicles in surrounding areas such as Milestrip Road and Town of Boston roads.
Meanwhile, several volunteer fire departments – including Orchard Park and Eden – said members offered to use their personal snowmobiles to respond to emergencies.
The State Park police at times had difficulty even seeing the front of their snowmobiles due to poor visibility, Krawczyk said. Their face masks offered little protection from the severe cold and wind they were encountering on the roadway, he added.
“It was conditions like we’ve never experienced,” he said. “If there was somebody out there, the fear was they weren’t just going to be chilly. It was cold. You could feel the frostbite actually making the tips of your fingers tingle.
“It was so cold the handlebar warmers wouldn’t even work. Your heated face mask wouldn’t work. It just froze over. But we chose to go on the sleds because those were our best assets we had to ensure those roads were safe.”