(CNN) — As a deadly and historic snowstorm swept through Erie County, New York, last weekend, some residents found themselves in a dire situation: stranded in the snow and unable to move, their cars running out of gas supplies. and the police could not come to the rescue.
Among those stranded this past Friday was Jay Withey, a mechanic from the town of Cheektowaga who had gone out to help a stranded friend but ended up stuck in the snow. Over the course of the night, he asked several people for help but was turned away, finally committing one last act of desperation to save himself and more than 20 people from the brutal storm.
His night began at 6 pm when he received a call from a friend who had gotten stuck in the rapidly accumulating snow.
“He said that I was the only person who would know that he would go after him, so I went looking for him,” Withey said.
Withey drove toward 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. Withey told Mike to get in the truck to get out of the cold.
Driving past mountains of snow, some several feet high, Withey said his truck got stuck twice. The first time, he was able to get out with a shovel, but the second time he felt hopeless.
“I was trying to dig myself up, but the snow was coming down as fast as I was removing it,” he said. With his clothes drenched and only a quarter tank of fuel available, Withey began to worry.
‘I fear for my life’
He left Mike in the truck and began knocking on the doors of the houses that lined the street to see if anyone would give them shelter.
Withey said he visited 10 homes and offered each one $500 to spend the night in his apartment. They all rejected it. “I begged them, ‘Please, please, can I sleep on the floor? I fear for my life,’ and they told me, ‘No, I’m sorry,’” he recounted.
Feeling defeated, Withey tried to walk back to his truck, but got lost in the wind and thick snow.
“My vision blurred, I started cramping and I feared for my life,” he said.
Finally, he saw a flash of light in the distance, the same flickering light he remembered parking his truck next to.
After returning to his vehicle, Withey called police, but was told that due to dangerous storm conditions, they couldn’t come and rescue him, he said. He also learned that the friend who had called him for help had been rescued by the authorities.
With the fuel level precariously low, Withey was worried but tired, so he tried to take a nap.
At around 11 pm, he heard a knock on the car window and opened the door. Outside was Mary, an elderly woman who said she had been stuck in her car since 4 pm and needed help. He told her to get in the truck.
“I didn’t leave until I made sure everyone was okay”
The next morning, Withey’s truck ran out of gas, leaving the trio huddled in Mary’s truck, which was also running low on gas.
Mary eventually told them that she needed to use the bathroom. That’s when Withey, seeing that the old woman was embarrassed, looked at the GPS on her phone and noticed that a school, EDGE Academy, was near her, she said.
“I said, ‘I’m going to go to that school, and I’m going to break into that school, because I know they have heat and a bathroom,’” she recounts.
Using an extra set of brake pads, Withey broke a school window so he could open the front door to let Mike and Mary in, while the security alarm blared.
“I’ve walked outside in the immediate area and I see that there are a lot of older people who are stranded in their cars,” Withey said. “One person had a dog and I took them all to school. Right now, there were around 10 people in the school.” He calculated that his ages ranged from 20 to 70 years.
With the group settled in at the school, Withey searched the cafeteria for cereal and apples, managed to turn off the alarm, and found mats in the gym for everyone to sleep on.
“Everyone was so happy to be at school and to be warm and to have food,” she said.
On Christmas morning, Withey and the others were able to use snowplows from the janitor’s closet to free their cars of the snow.
‘I had to do it to save everyone’
Withey, who describes himself as a religious man, said the whole episode was a test for him. If only one person had accepted his refugee claim that night, he would not have saved all those people, he said.
A man who turned him away saw Withey digging cars out of the snow and came to him crying to apologize, saying he couldn’t sleep that night knowing he had been denied shelter.
Withey stayed at the school until 8 pm on Christmas. “I didn’t leave until I made sure everyone was okay,” he said, adding that they started a group chat to keep in touch.