The families prayed for a miracle, knowing their loved ones were trapped in their cars for days as an unprecedented blizzard paralyzed Buffalo, New York, with freezing temperatures and blinding snow.
In Anndel Taylor’s home on Sunday night, a Christmas feast, full of the 22-year-old’s favorite dishes — macaroni and cheese, jerk pork and spiral ham — sat at the table untouched.
At a nearby home, the food also went cold as Edie Syta and her brother received news that their 73-year-old mother, Stasia Jóźwiak, who drove to the supermarket on Friday, was never coming back.
“You hope for the freaking best and you want the best, and everyone’s praying and everyone wants a miracle, and it doesn’t turn out that way,” Syta said through tears.
At least 64 people in the U.S. have died in the blizzard that wreaked havoc in at least a dozen states, according to an NBC News tally. Erie County, New York, accounted for more than half the death toll at 33, including 28 in Buffalo, officials said.
Among the dead in Erie County were many who perished from heart problems while shoveling or blowing snow, County Executive Mark Poloncarz said. The "once in a lifetime" storm, Poloncarz added, also killed many people in their cars.
On Friday afternoon, Jóźwiak wanted to buy fresh fish to make a traditional Polish meal for Christmas Eve, but her red Chevy Cobalt got stuck in a snowdrift, Syta said.
Jóźwiak asked for prayers when she spoke to her daughter around 7 p.m. At the time, she had been stuck in her car for about five hours.
“She said, ‘I need a miracle from God. Can you please pray for me?’ She said she loved me. I told her I loved her, too," Syta said. “I said, ‘Hold tight. We’re coming from you.'"
Syta and her spouse tried to dig out their truck to rescue her, but even their four-wheel pick-up truck with snow tires couldn't get anywhere.
When Jóźwiak stopped picking up her phone about two hours later, her daughter called the police multiple times, as well as the National Guard, the phone company, storm hotlines and any friend she could think of that could possibly help.
Syta’s spouse spent hours on foot, trying to find Jóźwiak, but was not successful.
On Christmas, Syta’s friends, who loved Jóźwiak and called her "Mama," set out to bring her home. Around 8 p.m., they found Jóźwiak's red Chevy and her body inside.
“It was such a shock,” Syta said. “I go through my emotions like a roller coaster."
“I don’t want to believe it," she said twice.
'We still feel helpless'
Anndel Taylor, who was weeks away from turning 23, was headed home from her assistant job at a nursing home Friday afternoon when whiteout conditions turned perilous and her car got stuck in the snow, her family said.
Taylor called the police, but she had no choice but to wait inside her car, which she kept running for warmth, said her mother, Wanda Brown Steele.
Taylor last spoke to her older sister shortly after midnight, telling her over the phone that she was going to go to sleep and try walking to safety in the morning.
Two days later, on Christmas night, a family friend found Taylor's car, which was still running, and broke through a window. He found Taylor lying dead in the reclined driver's seat.
“I’m good one minute, then it hits me,” Brown Steele said, adding that the image of her daughter’s frozen body sucks the oxygen out of the room.
“That tore me up. I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t breathe,” she said.
Taylor had moved from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Buffalo in early 2020 to be with her diabetic father and to finish college, where she was studying business administration.
Her father, Handel Taylor, said on the days he'd leave for dialysis, Taylor would rub his legs and put his socks and shoes on him. In the mornings, she would often dangle her hair over him, tickling his sleeping face until he woke up.
"When I open my eyes, I’d see her standing over me," he said. "Sometimes I’d laugh. Sometimes I’d say, 'Get out of my room.'"
He chuckled as he remembered the happy memories he had with his daughter, especially in the last two years they lived together.
In August, when the family went to the state fair, Taylor asked her father to ride the carousel with her. At 51, he did not want to but he hopped on board anyway.
"All the kids were looking at me. That was embarrassing," he said. "I wanted her to be happy.”
Taylor was a go-getter, determined to finish school, save enough money to buy a house and open up a business with her brother.
"She had plans. She was doing it," her mother said. "She got further than anybody, including myself."
In the snowed-in Buffalo home that Taylor called home, there is nothing much to do but mourn her.
"Everywhere in the house, everybody sees her face," said Taylor's stepmother, Lasheena Smith. "We still feel helpless."