CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. (WIVB) — It’s been one year since a Kenmore man ventured into the ferocious blizzard to help a stranded friend. “Merry Christmas, Jay” Withey never made it to that friend. Instead, he became a guardian angel, rescuing those stranded and scared in the blinding snow.
Jay Withey vividly remembers the Christmas blizzard that claimed nearly 50 of our neighbors and almost took his life.
Last Dec. 23, he ventured into the beast of a storm to help rescue a stuck friend. His friend was rescued by police, but Withey ended up getting stuck himself in Cheektowaga.
“If you stuck your hand out, your fingers were gone. I mean, it was like putting them through a wall. You just couldn’t see them,” said Withey. “Once it set in that this whiteout wasn’t a quick blur, it was a little nerve-wracking.”
Withey would help a man named Mike to safety in his warm truck, but it was low on fuel.
He had $500 in his pocket and went to look for help.
“That’s when I left my truck and I ended up getting lost,” said Withey. “I ended up getting lost, I was out for 2 and a half hours looking for shelter. And unfortunately, I got turned away by like 10 houses.”
In nothing more than a hoodie and sweatpants, Withey’s chest started tightening and hands freezing in the gripping cold.
“I actually lost, I have no feeling in my fingers and under my eyes,” added Withey. “Went blind for the last 45 minutes I was outside. I guess when your retinas get so cold they’ll pull apart.”
The 28-year-old tells us he never was a huge believer in the saying everything happens for a reason.
“Something had a hand on me because I walked right into the back of my own pickup truck after walking blind for about an hour,” Withey said.
Patrick Ryan: What do you think that was that led you back?
Jay Withey: A higher power, it was God.
Withey collapsed inside his truck, waking up to an elderly woman named Mary pounding on his truck window. He took her in.
The stranded trio would later venture back into the bitter blizzard to find Mary’s van which had more gas in it.
“So, I get on my GPS and I find that school,” said Withey. “It’s a ways away and I ask her if she has anything to break a window with. And she said ‘no,’ so I said I have to leave you, I have to go find my truck, because I have something in my truck I’m sure.”
Withey made it back to his truck and with brake pads in hand, he headed to the Pine Hill Primary Center on East Delavan Avenue.
“I said if I walk as straight as possible, at some point I’ll hit the school because we couldn’t see,” said Withey. “And sure enough, I walked as straight as I could falling over, picking myself up, and ended up hitting the school.”
In all more than 60 people took refuge inside the school during the blizzard.
Withey used the building’s tractor to plow out neighbors and help them fix their generators.
He said the experience dramatically changed his life. It’s made him grateful for every day, adding that he feels like family with the people he helped save regularly staying in contact.
Patrick Ryan: How does the word hero sit with you?
Jay Withey: It’s not me. I’m no hero.
But for many Jay Withey is their hero.
He said letters from strangers around the world poured in thanking him for his service.
He was also honored by Governor Kathy Hochul, threw out the first pitch at a Buffalo Bisons game, and was gifted Super Bowl tickets by Patti and Thurman Thomas.
Withey left a note behind inside the school which has since been seen around the world.
He apologized for breaking and explained his story.
Withey signed it — ‘Merry Christmas, Jay.’