Police in Cheektowaga, New York have issued a note of appreciation to a man who during a historic blizzard on Christmas Eve led dozens of stranded people to shelter at a school, which he broke into in order to shepherd them inside to safety.
The Cheektowaga Police Department said in statement Friday that they have identified—and hailed as a hero—the man who broke a window to get into Pine Hill School in Buffalo, New York, to make sure 24 people stuck in the freezing cold could get inside for warmth.
“Our Chief was able to speak to him and express our gratitude for his heroic actions,” the department said, while describing the man, Jay Withey of Kenmore, New York, as “amazing.”
Withey got stranded in the deadly winter storm in Cheektowaga, just east of Buffalo, on the evening of Dec. 23 and when his car was running low on gas in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve, he left his vehicle to seek shelter. He found the school nearby and broke a window to get inside.
It was “really God’s will,” Withey told WBEN Radio in an interview, saying he took several trips up and down Delavan Avenue to find stranded motorists and lead them to safety.
“I said I have to do something there’s other people stuck around here,” Withey told the outlet.
Robert Holzman, one of the stranded motorists, told WBEN that someone knocked on his window in the early hours of Christmas Eve with an offer of shelter at the school.
“Somebody approached the car and said they got into the school,” Holzman said. “That was Jay.”
‘Merry Christmas, Jay’
Police said in a separate statement they received an alarm of a glass break at the school but were unable to respond immediately due to bad weather. When responding officers finally arrived at the school, they found the broken window but nothing inside seemed missing or out of place.
“They thought that maybe the damage was caused from the hurricane winds till they saw a handwritten note left on a table,” the police said. “The note started with an apology for causing damage to the window and having to borrow the snow blower to rescue others that had ran of out gas and were trapped in their cars. The note was signed ‘Merry Christmas, Jay.’”
Cheektowaga Police posted a series of stills from the school’s surveillance video in a bid to track him down.
“We want to identify ‘Jay’ and have him recognized for his going above and beyond actions that saved lives,” police said, adding later that they managed to find Withey thanks to friends and family.
In total, 24 people ended up finding shelter in the school thanks to Withey’s actions.
‘People Taking Care of People’
Sabrina Andino, one of those Withey helped guide to safety, told WBEN that, when stuck in blizzard conditions, she thought “we were going to die.”
“Without Jay breaking into that school, as bad as it sounds, but he saved us,” Andino said.
Once inside the school, Withey pried open the kitchen door in search of essentials that could help the group survive and found blankets and water in the nurse’s office.
Police said that video surveillance showed a scene of people helping one another in a time of need.
“We watched the video surveillance and witnessed people taking care of people. There was a freezer full of food but no one touched it. They only ate what was necessary to stay alive. They used the gym for the kids to play and pulled the smart boards out of the classrooms to watch the news for updates,” police said.
Withey told NBC in an interview that, once it seemed safe to venture back out, he found a snowblower in the school and helped people dig their cars out from a blanket of snow so they could get back home to their families.
“When they were finally able to leave safely, you never would have known anyone was there. They plugged the smart boards back in, cleaned up all the tables and things that they used. This group of amazing people took care of each other and the building they found shelter in,” police said, adding that the only thing officers found when finally arriving on the scene was Withey’s note.
“I’m terribly sorry about breaking the school window and for breaking in the kitchen,” he wrote in the note. “I had to do it to save everyone and get them shelter and food and a bathroom.”
Police said that the school administrators don’t want any charges filed against Withey for breaking the window.
Death Toll Climbs in Buffalo
Last week’s blizzard hit the Buffalo area especially hard, with at least 40 deaths reported in western New York linked to the winter storm, most of them in Buffalo.
Some victims have yet to be identified, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said at a storm briefing Thursday.
“There are families in this community who still have not been able to identify where a loved one is, they’re missing,” Poloncarz said.
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown announced late Wednesday that a driving ban in New York’s second-most-populous city would finally be lifted on Thursday.
“Significant progress has been made” on snow removal, Brown said at a news conference late Wednesday.
Suburban roads, major highways, and Buffalo Niagara International Airport had already reopened.
Still, Brown urged residents not to drive if they didn’t have to.
The death toll in Buffalo has exceeded that of the area’s notorious blizzard of 1977, with the most commonly reported figure being 29 fatalities, though some sources cite less.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.