After a motorist who got stranded in the deadly winter storm in upstate New York found a safe place to ride it out, he went to great lengths to lead dozens of others to it, too, in what officials are hailing as a lifesaving and heroic rescue effort.
Jay Withey, 27, of Kenmore, New York, made sure 24 people who were stuck on the side of the road during the brutal storm got out of harm’s way, police said.
The blizzard stranded Withey in Cheektowaga, just east of Buffalo, on Friday. When he started running low on fuel Saturday morning, he decided to leave his car and head for Pine Hill School, where he broke a window so he could get inside.
But he didn’t stay inside long. He soon set back outside, looking for other stranded motorists he could direct to the school.
“My mission was just to keep going out and grabbing as many people as I can and to just keep going,” Withey said. “I just kept walking, and I walked until I cried and I couldn’t walk any further. I was just beat.”
Inside the school, he pried open the kitchen door to gather essentials to help feed the group. He also found the nurse’s office and collected blankets and water.
Withey said he left the school’s front door open overnight so others could join the group.
They were stuck in the school for about 24 hours or so, he said.
Once it appeared safe to leave Sunday morning, Withey said, he found a snowblower in the school and helped everyone dig out their cars so they could drive home.
“I just couldn’t ask for more better people to get stuck with,” he said.
But he felt bad about the busted window and tried to fix it on his way out but had no luck. Withey left a note for officers to find, apologizing for the shattered glass window and for scavenging for supplies.
“I’m terribly sorry about breaking the school window and for breaking in the kitchen,” he wrote. “I had to do it to save everyone and get them shelter and food and a bathroom.”
He signed it “Merry Christmas Jay” but gave no last name. So when the Cheektowaga Police Department found it, they weren’t sure whom to thank.
They posted the note and security images on social media asking for people to help identify the good Samaritan.
“We watched the video surveillance and witnessed people taking care of people,” the police department said in a statement. “This group of amazing people took care of each other and the building they found shelter in. We want to identify ‘Jay’ and have him recognized for his going above and beyond actions that saved lives.”
Family and friends who saw the police post knew whom officials were looking for.
“He’s a very selfless person and was in no way doing what he did for any sort of recognition,” his cousin Vincent Consiglio said. “That’s just who he is. Always helping people.”
Withey said the police chief has thanked him and commended him for the way he helped take care of others.
Chief Brian Gould said the entire department is grateful for Withey’s actions and wants the community to use his story to help them grieve after the storm.
“We know that due to the actions of many people like Jay, there are many families who were fortunate enough to be reunited with their loved ones,” Gould said.
Police said they don’t expect the school to file any charges.
The storm is blamed for at least 40 deaths in New York, most of them in Buffalo. Authorities warned that the death toll could climb as the National Guard conducts door-to-door checks.
This Christmas is one that Withey won’t forget.
“I hope people realize it’s important to be kind and to do the right thing to help one another,” he said.