As a deadly and historic blizzard barreled through Erie County, New York, last weekend, some residents found themselves in a dire scenario – stranded in howling snow with nowhere to go, their cars dwindling in gas supply with police unable to come to the rescue.
Among those trapped last Friday was Jay Withey, a mechanic in the town of Cheektowaga who had ventured out to help a trapped friend, but instead got caught in the snow himself. Over the course of the night, he would be turned away by several people he begged for help, eventually committing a final act of desperation to save himself and more than 20 others from the brutal storm.
His night began at 6 p.m. when he got a call from a friend who had become stuck in the quickly mounting snow.
“He said I’m the only person he knew that would come over so I figured I would go get him,” Withey said.
Withey drove toward his friend, weaving between abandoned vehicles that littered the road. Suddenly, he saw a young man named Mike walking in sneakers and wrapped in a light jacket. He told Mike to hop in the truck to escape the cold.
As he drove past snow drifts several feet tall, Withey said, his truck became stuck twice. The first time, he was able to shovel his way out, but the second time felt hopeless.
“I’m trying to dig myself out, but the snow is coming down just as fast as I’m shoveling,” he said. With his clothes soaking wet and only a quarter of a tank of fuel left, Withey started to grow concerned.
‘I’m fearing for my life’
Leaving Mike in the truck, he began knocking on the doors of houses lining the street to see if anyone would give them shelter.
Withey said he went to 10 households, offering each $500 to spend the night on their floor. All of them turned him away. “I plead with them, ‘Please, please can I sleep on the floor, I’m in fear for my life,’ and they say, ‘No I’m sorry’,” he said.
Feeling defeated, Withey tried to walk back to his truck, but became lost in the blustery wind and thick snow.
“My vision is getting foggy, my body is cramping up, and I’m fearing for my life,” he said.
Finally, he saw a light glint in the distance, the same blinking light he remembered parking his truck next to.
After marching back to the truck, Withey called the police but was told that due to the dangerous storm conditions, they couldn’t come to rescue him, he said. He also learned that the friend who had called him for help had been rescued by authorities.
With the gas running precariously low, Withey was concerned, but tired, so he tried to take a nap.
At around 11 p.m., he heard a knock at the car window and opened the door to find Mary, an elderly woman who said she had been stuck in her car since 4 p.m. and needed help. He told her to get in the truck, too.
‘I didn’t leave until I made sure everyone was okay’
By the next morning, Withey’s truck had run out of gas, leaving the trio to huddle in Mary’s van, which was also running low on fuel.
Eventually, Mary needed to use the bathroom. It was then that Withey, sensing she felt embarrassed, looked at his phone’s GPS and noticed that a school – EDGE Academy – was nearby, he said.
“I say, ‘I’m going to that school, and I’m going to break into that school, because I know they have heat and a bathroom,’” he said.
Using an extra set of brake pads, Withey smashed through a window of the school so he could open the front door and let Mike and Mary in, with the security alarm blaring.
“I walk outside in the immediate area and there are a lot of older people that are stranded in their cars,” Withey said. “One person had a dog, and I get them all into the school. At this point, I have about 10 people in the school.” He estimated their ages ranged between 20s and 70s.
With the group settled in the school, Withey scavenged for 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 just so happy to be in the school and to be warm and have food,” he said.
On Christmas morning, Withey and the others were able to use snow blowers from the janitor’s closet to free their cars from the mounds of snow.
‘I had to do it to save everyone’
Withey, who describes himself as a religious man, said he views the whole ordeal as a blessing in disguise. If just one person had taken him up on his plea for shelter that night, he would not have saved all those people, he said.
One man who turned him away saw Withey snow blowing the cars and approached him in tears to apologize, saying he couldn’t sleep that night knowing he had denied Withey shelter.
Withey stayed at the school until 8 p.m. on Christmas. “I didn’t leave until I made 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 break-in, which police found when they were eventually able to respond to the alarm Withey set off when he entered the school.
“To whomever it may concern, I’m terribly sorry about breaking the school window and for breaking in the kitchen,” it read. “Got stuck at 8 pm Friday and slept in my truck with two strangers, just trying not to die,” it continued. “There were 7 elderly people also stuck and out of fuel. I had to do it to save everyone and get them shelter and food and a bathroom.” He signed the letter, “Merry Christmas Jay.”
Cheektowaga Police were able to find Withey with the public’s help after sharing his note and surveillance camera images.
Police Chief Brian Gould told CNN that Withey was in a section of town that they were having a hard time getting to. The chief called Withey’s actions heroic and an example of the sense of community among people in the area.
“We were absolutely shocked to see that he had over 20 people in the school (and) two dogs,” he said.
“Not only a heroic action, but just an overall good person.” “He definitely saved some lives that day,” Gould said.
CNN’s Elizabeth Wolfe, Taylor Romine, Andy Rose and Paradise Afshar contributed to this report.