It was supposed to be a three-hour road trip. It turned into a 28-hour ordeal for members of a college basketball team, who finally were rescued Wednesday after a fast-moving snowstorm trapped them in their bus and buried parts of upstate New York under more than 5 feet of snow.
At least seven deaths were blamed on the storm, which swept across the Great Lakes and began dropping snow on the region late Monday. By Wednesday afternoon the snow had tapered off, but officials warned residents not to be fooled: Another snowstorm was expected overnight.
“Mother Nature is showing us who’s boss once again,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who called in the National Guard to help haul away snow and clear vehicles stranded on roads. “This is a historic event. I believe when all is said and done, this snowfall may break all sorts of records.”
By afternoon, officials said everyone stranded in vehicles had been rescued, but the task of getting rid of the snow was daunting. The Buffalo Bills offered $10 an hour and game tickets to people willing to help dig out the team’s stadium, where the Bills are scheduled to play the New York Jets on Sunday. The Bills’ vice president of operations, Andy Major, said 220,000 tons of snow needed to be removed.
Long stretches of major roads, including the New York State Thruway, remained closed indefinitely. Heavy equipment vehicles, including more than 200 plows borrowed from other regions, were at work trying to make a dent in the mountains of white.
Tiffany Corselli was one of 24 players and coaches from Niagara University’s women’s basketball team who spent 28 hours on the team bus after it ran into the storm while heading home from a game in Pittsburgh on Monday night. The mood already was down, because the team had lost. It grew grimmer after the bus ran into whiteout conditions and was forced to stop.
Players and coaches began sending out Twitter messages Tuesday asking for help after emergency responders failed to show up. They huddled together in prayer. “We were just praying that they could save us or at least send us water or food,” said Corselli, a sophomore point guard.
Help finally arrived about 4 a.m. Wednesday.
Passengers in a Greyhound bus were stuck for 36 hours, and some ventured into the snow to find food as they waited for state police to clear a path to them, said Naomi Hill, who was on board. Snow piled up to the bus windows, said Hill, who was traveling to Cornell University in upstate New York from Michigan.
At one point, a man with a shovel tried clearing a path to the bus, but he got stuck in the snow and left.
Early Wednesday, some of the passengers waded through waist-high snow to find food. They reached what they thought was a gas station, only to discover it was a ticket booth.
"One of the guys we were with just started crying," said Hill, a sophomore at Cornell.
The group eventually found a hotel and brought a bag full of bagels back to the bus. A few hours later, state police riding all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles reached the bus and shuttled passengers to a shelter.
In a sign of the unpredictable nature of so-called lake-effect snowstorms, which drop snow in bands that leave some areas blanketed and others barely touched, only 6.2 inches of snow were reported at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. But in the suburbs of Gardenville and West Seneca, snowfall totals were in the 60-inch range.
"It's been a rough go in certain parts of the region, that's for sure," said Dan Kelly, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
According to Weather Underground, a commercial weather service, the continental U.S. record for a 24-hour snowfall is 75.8 inches at Silver Lake, Colo., in April 1921.