After knocking on more than a dozen doors to plead for a place to shelter from the historic blizzard that hit the Buffalo area last week, Jay Withey trudged back to his truck, bearing bad news.
Resigned, the men spent the night inside the truck and pulled in a stranded woman. They were using precious fuel to maintain the heater while the overnight temperature averaged 9 degrees.
By morning, Withey wasn’t sure how much longer the woman could survive without food and water.
“I look on a map on my phone, and I see there’s a school nearby,” Withey, 27, said Friday in an interview with The Washington Post. He told the woman: “‘I’m breaking into that school. I know there’s heat in there, I know there’s a bathroom, and I bet there is food.’”
His desperate decision may have saved dozens of lives during a storm that stranded hundreds of people in a major metropolitan area that was still assessing the damage more than a week later.
Outside the Cheektowaga high school, EDGE Academy, the woman worried they’d get in trouble for breaking in. Withey figured he’d need to explain his decision to school officials and authorities later, but he made a case that this was the trio’s best chance of surviving the blizzard. The three of them eventually got into the building after Withey smashed a side window with a brake pad he found in his truck.
Once both strangers had settled inside, Withey walked up to other cars stranded nearby, offering their occupants a place to spend the night.
“I didn’t want anyone else to suffer,” Withey said. “I got put in a position to save a whole bunch of people. I got as many people as I could.”
By the end of the weekend, Withey had offered shelter to some two dozen strangers, including children and two dogs. He left behind a handwritten note explaining his actions.
It read: “To whoever it may concern, I am terribly sorry about breaking the school window and for breaking in the kitchen. Got stuck at 8 p.m. Friday and slept in my truck with two strangers just trying not to die. There were 7 elderly also stuck and out of fuel. I had to do it to save everyone and get them shelter, food and a bathroom. Merry Christmas — Jay.”
Like Withey, hundreds of people were stranded in their cars and homes as the snowstorm hit western New York, prompting a travel ban, upending holiday plans and leading to criticism of the area’s leaders.
The blizzard — Buffalo’s deadliest disaster in a decade — left at least 39 people dead in Erie County, a number authorities said is expected to climb as emergency responders are able to access other areas in the coming days. The majority of those killed were people of color.
But as the city was digging itself out of the snow, stories of strangers lending a hand continued to emerge.
DeMario Johnson and his mother, Addie Johnson, were also stranded near the Cheektowaga school. They were on their way to a relative’s house on Dec. 23 — escaping Addie Johnson’s electricity-deprived home — when their car got stuck in the mud, DeMario Johnson, 50, told The Post.
The storm made it impossible for them to be rescued, emergency responders told them, so they and Addie’s 3-year-old Shih Tzu, DJ, spent the night inside their car.
“To whoever it may concern, I am terribly sorry about breaking the school window and for breaking in the kitchen. Got stuck at 8 p.m. Friday and slept in my truck with two strangers just trying not to die. There were 7 elderly also stuck and out of fuel. I had to do it to save everyone and get them shelter, food and a bathroom. Merry Christmas — Jay.”
By the time Withey found them on Dec. 24, Addie Johnson, 71, didn’t think they’d make it out of the blizzard alive, her son told The Post.
Withey said he planned to use the school as a shelter for the blizzard, but Addie Johnson was worried about getting into trouble.
“We’re going to jail,” she told her son.
“Maybe not,” DeMario Johnson replied.
They accepted Withey’s offer.
Once inside, Withey managed to open the cafeteria and found cereal, juice, water and coffee for the group. He cooked pizza for lunch and meatballs for dinner. The group spent the hours in the cafeteria eating and getting to know one another. They shared what Christmas meant to them, where they’d gone to school, what they did for a living and how they ended up stranded in a blizzard on Christmas Eve.
“We just enjoyed that we had shelter, we had food and we had a new family,” Addie told The Post. “On Christmas morning, we all woke up and said ‘Merry Christmas’ to everybody.”
At one point over the weekend, Withey found a set of master keys and opened a room to get a TV so the group could watch movies in the cafeteria. When night came, some slept on chairs and others on the ground. Once the weather improved, the men helped Withey clear the snow from their cars with a snowblower he found in the school.
Before the last person left on Christmas Day, the crew of strangers created a group chat titled “Blizzard Survivors,” where they made plans to gather for a summer picnic. They cleaned the school, washed the dishes and took out the trash before parting ways.
They wanted to make sure they left things as they found them, a show of gratitude to the school that sheltered, fed and entertained them.
After reviewing security footage, the school grounds and the handwritten note, the Cheektowaga police called Withey’s actions “heroic” and said they would file no charges related to the break-in. The school district, which said Withey had acted “out of desperation,” thanked the quick-thinking man for his “selfless, lifesaving and courageous efforts” to whisk people to safety.