As a deadly and historic blizzard ravaged Erie County, New York last week, some residents found themselves in a dire scenario – stranded in howling snow with nowhere to go, their car running low on gas, and the police were unable to come to their rescue.
Among those stranded last Friday was Jay Withey, a mechanic who dared to help a friend stranded in the town of Cheektowaga but instead got himself stuck in the snow. During the night, he would be turned down by the few he had pleaded for help, eventually performing one last act of desperation to save himself and more than 20 others from the brutal storm.
It started at 6 pm when he got a call from a friend who was stranded in the rapidly rising snow.
“He said I was the only person he knew was coming, so I thought I’d go and get him,” Withey said.
Withey drove through the abandoned cars strewn across the road to his friend. Suddenly, he saw a young man named Mike walking in sneakers and wrapped in a light jacket. He told Mike to jump into the truck to escape the cold.
Withey said his truck got stuck twice as it drove past several feet of snowdrifts. He managed to shovel out the first time, but felt hopeless the second time around.
“I’m trying to dig myself up but the snow is falling as fast as I shoveled it,” he said. With his clothes soaking wet and only a quarter of the tank left, Withey began to worry.
Leaving Mike in the truck, he started knocking on the doors of the houses that lined the street to see if anyone could take shelter for them.
Withey said she went to 10 households and offered each one. $500 to spend the night on your own floor. They all turned him down. I beg them, ‘Please, please can I sleep on the floor, I’m worried for my life,’ and they say, ‘No, I’m sorry.
Feeling defeated, Withey tried to get back to his truck, but was lost in strong winds and heavy snow.
“My vision is getting blurry, my body is cramping, and I’m worried for my life,” she said.
Finally, he saw a flash of light in the distance, the same flashing light he remembered parking his truck next to him.
After Withey got back in the truck, she called the police, but said they were told they couldn’t come to her rescue due to dangerous storm conditions. He also learned that his friend, who called him for help, was also rescued by the authorities.
With the gas running dangerously low, Withey was worried but tired, so she tried to take a nap.
Around 11 pm, he heard the car window slamming, and when he opened the door, he found Mary, an elderly woman who said she had been stuck in her car since 4 pm and needed help. She told him to get in the truck too.
The next morning, Withey’s truck ran out of gas, and the trio began to assemble in Mary’s van, which was again running low on fuel.
Finally, Mary had to use the bathroom. Feeling embarrassed at the time, Withey looked at her phone’s GPS and noticed that there was a school nearby—EDGE Academy,’ she said.
“I say, ‘I’m going to go to that school and break into that school because I know they have heating and a bathroom,'” she said.
Using an extra set of brake pads, Withey broke the school’s window to open the front door and let Mike and Mary in as the security alarm went off.
“I’m walking outside in the emergency area and there are a lot of elderly people stuck in their cars,” Withey said. “One person had a dog and I take them all to school. At this point, there are about 10 people in the school.” He estimated their age to be between their 20s and 70s.
Once the group settled into school, Withey gathered cereal and apples in the cafeteria, managed to turn off the alarm, and found mats in the gym for everyone to sleep on.
“Everyone is very happy to be at school, warming up and eating,” he said.
On Christmas morning, Withey and the others were able to use the snow throwers in the janitor’s locker to get their car out of the snowdrifts.
Withey, who describes himself as a religious man, said he saw all adversity as a blessing in disguise. If only one person had He said that if he had sought asylum that night, he would not have been able to save all these people.
A man who turned her down saw Withey’s carts tossing snow and approached him to apologize in tears, saying that he could not sleep knowingly that he refused to give Withey shelter that night.
Withey stayed at school until 8pm on Christmas. “I didn’t leave until I was sure everyone was okay,” he said, adding that they started a group chat to stay in touch.
Before he left, he made sure to leave a note apologizing for the intrusion, and police found this out when they were finally able to respond to the alarm Withey started when he entered the school.
The statement read, “I am so sorry that I broke the school window and smashed the kitchen, regardless of who was involved.” “I was stranded at 8pm on a Friday and slept with two strangers in my truck trying not to die,” he continued. “There were also 7 old people who were stranded and ran out of fuel. I had to do this to save everyone and provide them shelter, food and baths.” He signed the letter, “Merry Christmas, Jay.”
Cheektowaga Police managed to locate Withey, with the help of the public, after sharing his note and security camera footage.
Police Chief Brian Gould told CNN that Withey was in a part of town and was having trouble getting there. The chief described Withey’s actions as heroic and an example of a sense of community among the people of the area.
“We were absolutely shocked to see that there were over 20 people (and) two dogs at the school,” he said.
“Not just a heroic act, but a good person in general.” “He definitely saved some lives that day,” Gould said.