‘I had to do it to save everyone’: Man breaks into school and shelters more than 20 people from blizzard
As a deadly and historic blizzard swept through New York’s Erie County last weekend, some residents found themselves in a dire scenario – stranded in howling snow with nowhere to go, their cars dwindling petrol supplies and the police unable to come to the rescue.
Among those trapped last Friday was Jay Withey, a mechanic from the town of Cheektowaga who had ventured out to help a trapped friend, but got stuck in the snow himself. During the night, he was 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 started at 6 p.m. when he received a call from a friend who had gotten stuck in the rapidly rising snow.
« He said I’m the only person he knows that would come so I thought I’d go get him, » Withey said.
Withey drove towards his friend, weaving between the abandoned vehicles that littered the road. Suddenly he saw a young man named Mike walking around in sneakers and wrapped in a light jacket. He told Mike to jump in the truck to escape the cold.
As he drove past several-foot-tall snowdrifts, Withey said, his truck got stuck twice. The first time he was able to shovel his way, but the second time he felt hopeless.
“I’m trying to manage, but the snow is falling as fast as I shovel,” he says. With his clothes soaked and only a quarter tank of fuel remaining, Withey began to worry.
Leaving Mike in the truck, he began knocking on the doors of houses along the street to see if anyone would take them in.
Withey said he went to 10 homes, offering each $500 to spend the night on their floor. Everyone sent him away. « I beg them, ‘Please, please, can I sleep on the floor, I’m scared for my life’ and they say, ‘No, I’m sorry,' » he said. he says.
Feeling defeated, Withey tried to get back to his truck, but got lost in the strong wind and deep snow.
“My vision blurs, my body tenses and I fear for my life,” he said.
Finally, he saw a light in the distance, the same flashing light he remembered parking his truck next to.
After returning to the truck, Withey called the police but was told that due to dangerous storm conditions they could not come and rescue him, he said. He also learned that the friend who called him for help had been rescued by the authorities.
With the gas dangerously low, Withey was worried, but tired, so he tried to take a nap.
At around 11 p.m. he heard a knock on the car window and opened the door to find Mary, an elderly woman who said she had been stuck in her car for 4 p.m. and needed help. He told her to get in the truck too.
The next morning, Withey’s truck had run out of gas, leaving the trio huddled in Mary’s van, which was also low on fuel.
Eventually, Mary had to use the bathroom. That’s when Withey, sensing she was feeling awkward, looked at her phone’s GPS and noticed a school – EDGE Academy – was nearby, he said.
« I say, ‘I’m going to this school and I’m going to break into this school, because I know they have heating and a bathroom,' » he said.
Using an extra set of brake pads, Withey smashed a school window so he could open the front door and let Mike and Mary in, with the security alarm sounding.
« I’m walking outside in the immediate area and there are a lot of old people stuck in their cars, » Withey said. “One person had a dog and I brought them all to school. At this point I have about 10 people in the school. He estimated that their ages ranged between 20 and 70 years old.
Once the group was settled in at school, Withey got some cereal and apples from the cafeteria, managed to turn off the alarm, and found mats in the gym for everyone to sleep on.
« Everyone is so happy to be in school and to be warm and to have food, » he said.
On Christmas morning, Withey and the others were able to use snowblowers from the janitor’s closet to free their cars from mounds of snow.
Withey, who describes himself as a religious man, said he viewed the whole ordeal as a blessing in disguise. If only one person had taken asking him for shelter that night, he wouldn’t have saved all those people, he said.
A man who fired him saw Withey snow blowing on the cars and approached him in tears to apologize, saying he couldn’t sleep that night, knowing he had refused the shelter at Withey.
Withey stayed at school until 8 p.m. on Christmas Day. « I didn’t leave until I made sure everyone was okay, » he said, adding that they had started a group chat to keep in touch.
Before leaving, he made sure to leave a note apologizing for the break-in, which police found when they were finally able to respond to the alarm raised by Withey as he entered the school.
« To whoever it is, I am terribly sorry for breaking the school window and breaking into the kitchen, » it read. « I got stuck at 8 p.m. on Friday and slept in my truck with two strangers, just trying not to die, » he continued. “There were 7 elderly people also stuck and out of fuel. I had to do this to save everyone and provide them with shelter, food and a bathroom. He signed the letter « Merry Christmas Jay ».
Cheektowaga police were able to locate Withey with the help of the public after sharing his note and CCTV footage.
Police Chief Brian Gould told CNN Withey was in a part of town they had trouble getting to. The chief called Withey’s actions heroic and an example of a sense of community among the people of the region.
« We were absolutely shocked to see that he had over 20 people at school (and) two dogs, » he said.
« Not just a heroic deed, but just a good person overall. » “He definitely saved lives that day,” Gould said.