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Genesee County reports no deaths as result of vicious storm, credits life-saving volunteer efforts

Nathan Fix
Tony Johnston, left, and Nathan Fix spent roughly 17 hours driving a SnoCat through a historic bomb cyclone with a convoy of first responders to rescue people stranded in cars on Christmas weekend in subzero temperatures in Genesee County. Both Fix and Johnston are part of the Genesee SnoPackers Snowmobile Club Inc.

Genesee County reached above-freezing temperatures on Wednesday for the first time since a winter storm plunged the region into dangerously cold conditions last weekend.

And Genesee County Manager Matt Landers said were it not for first responders and good Samaritans, the vicious winter storm easily could have resulted in tragedy.

“It was a harrowing 48-72 hours,” Landers said. “We were very concerned that first morning, afterwards, Saturday morning ... that we were going to have potentially a mass casualty on our hands because of the number of cars that were off the road out in Oakfield and Alabama.”

But Landers said there are no reported storm-related deaths in the county because of people like Nathan Fix and others.

Fix is the vice president of Genesee SnoPackers Snowmobile Club Inc. He’s also a volunteer firefighter with the Alexander Fire Department and an emergency services dispatcher for the Genesee County Sheriff's Office.

But he said it was largely through his work with the club that he was able to take to the roads on Friday evening in what was essentially a freezing hurricane.

He said it started with a call to his supervisor at the Sheriff’s Office: “’Do you want me to come to work or do you want me to get the groomer out?’”

A “groomer” is a tank-like contraption with a plow on the front. For about 17 hours, Fix and his fellow SnoPacker Tony Johnston rode through whiteouts and howling winds blasting them at 50 to 60 miles per hour.

“Your face would freeze so fast, I started timing it because I was curious,” Fix said. “It was about 30 to 60 seconds. Your complete face would freeze and your eyelashes would actually either freeze open or closed.

“And then of course, naturally your eyes water more,” he said. “You couldn’t even see.”

Nathan Fix
Roads in Genesee County were rendered undrivable during historic winter storm Elliot that ripped through the region on Christmas weekend.

They formed a small convoy with first responders on a snowmobile and a pickup truck. After some hours, Fix said, they spotted a Dodge truck in the snow.

“It was a male and female, probably late 60s, maybe early 60s. And they were pretty much full hypothermia,” he said. “They couldn't talk. They couldn't move. They were in rough shape. They probably had an hour left if they were lucky. And their vehicle was long out of fuel because there was snow inside the vehicle.”

Fix said they got the couple out safely — and went on to rescue about 30 people in total.

“Some of these people had slippers on, traveling in pajamas — absolutely not prepared for this kind of weather whatsoever,” he said. “I mean, there was a French couple out of Canada that we rescued on Townline Road who literally was writing their goodbyes to their family because they were pretty sure they were not going to make it out of the storm.”

Routes 77 and 63 had the most cars stuck in the snow, Fix said, likely because of how people were rerouted when the New York State Thruway closed.

“Whatever electronic map system they took, it took them right into the heart of the storm,” Fix said. “And you would truly think in the year 2022, there'd be a way to communicate with the National Weather Service or whoever, you know, you may not want them to travel that way.”

In the wake of the storm, Genesee County will receive FEMA funding after a federal emergency declaration earlier this week.

Landers said that will go toward reimbursing extensive overtime costs and repairing equipment damages.

But that may not cover the volunteer work of people like Fix and Johnston.

“I know some people are making the comments that they're you know, after the storm, they're moving — that's the last straw,” Landers said. “I'm the opposite. … Seeing stuff like this would make me never want to leave it. This community really banded together and saved lives.”

As for Fix, he said while he could have clocked in to work instead, he has no regrets.

Noelle E. C. Evans is WXXI's Murrow Award-winning Education reporter/producer.