CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. (WIVB) — Last Friday, as the Blizzard of ’22 whipped through Western New York, Jay Withey attempted to rescue a stranded friend.
He never made it. Instead, the Kenmore resident’s truck got stuck near Pine Hill Primary Center on East Delavan Avenue.
“I started getting nervous, and the wind was just blowing snow,” Withey told News 4. “I can’t see out the passenger window – it’s piled up over the truck already. Now I’m nervous we’re going to run out of gas and get stuck in.”
Along the way, he had picked up a man named Mike, who Withey said was walking in only a light jacket and sneakers. When the two realized they were stuck, Withey decided to brave the elements to get help.
He walked around the neighborhood, knocking on doors and offering the homeowners $500 to let him inside. When that failed, he knew what he had to do to save himself and others.
“I said ‘I’m going to break into that school,'” Withey said.
He grabbed a brake pad he had inside his car and broke one of the school’s windows. After climbing inside, he opened the doors to those stranded.
Inside one of those cars were Addie and DeMario Johnson.
“He said, ‘here’s a school. They have heat, they have food, they have a bathroom.’ He said, ‘I’m about to break in and we’re going in. Are you with me?’ I said, ‘yes, sir,'” DeMario said.
After the Johnson’s power went out, they were trying to get to DeMario’s son’s house. The storm was so bad by the time they reached Cheektowaga from their University Heights home, they couldn’t make it the final three blocks to their destination.
“I said, ‘God, I know you can do this because I believe in you. All we need is [a] guardian angel,” Addie said. “When Jay knocked on that window I said, ‘there is our guardian angel.’ He did send us a guardian angel.”
When everyone was inside, Withey broke into the cafeteria, using a table leg to pry open the sliding window. The group cooked a Christmas Eve dinner of stuffed crust pizza and meatballs, washing it down with juice.
They also used the school’s John Deere to try and dig out their cars once the snow and wind lightened up. But Withey said the whole time the group was there, they were leaving the school in the same condition they found it in.
“We totaled 24 people in this school over the weekend,” Withey said.
They were able to finally leave on Christmas Day, with the broken window as the only evidence anyone was there.
Days after the blizzard hit, Cheektowaga police began clearing places where alarms had gone off, Pine Hill being one of them.
“We made it to this building and we realized there was a broken window. Our school resource officer has access to the video, and at that point we realized somebody was in the school,” said Cheektowaga Police Chief Brian Gould.
Officers continued searching inside the school when they came across a note apologizing for breaking in. It was signed: “Merry Christmas, Jay.”
Gould decided to put a post out on social media, asking Withey to come forward. Not because he was in trouble, but because the department wanted to thank him for saving so many lives.
“It drives home the fact that we are the City of Good Neighbors, and we do take care of each other,” Gould said.
But Withey said he didn’t do this for the accolades.
“I didn’t do it for any recognition,” he said. “I just did it to survive and to help other people.”
The group said they’re now bonded by this experience, calling each other family.
“We were put together because the weather was so bad outside,” Addie Johnson said. “Good can come out of the bad. Good can come out of the bad if people only believe it.”