When one breaks into a building, they're typically referred to as a criminal - hunted down by the police to pay for their actions. However, when this man broke a school window, he was labeled a national hero...
In December 2022, New York experienced one of the deadliest blizzards in their history. The intense storm, which involved powerful winds and incredibly low temperatures, wreaked havoc across the state.
In some areas, snowfall was as thick as 40 inches, leaving many stranded and injured. Across the country, the death toll stood at 49, with 27 in Erie County, New York. All in all, citizens were told to stay home and not go out unless absolutely necessary.
Under Lock Down
With everything on hold and an absence of people and authorities on the streets, many were left vulnerable. Due to the extremely overwhelming winds and blinding views, rescue services could not reach those in need, and many were left to fend for themselves in difficult conditions.
When cities are locked down like this, and there are minimal cops around, it's common for 'looters' to take advantage of the situation, breaking into homes and stores. When this one man was caught on CCTV camera breaking into the local school, the response was unexpected.
A Chilling Site
The day after the storm had subsided and citizens were told they could leave their homes again, the principal of Pine Hill School headed back to campus to check on the state of the building. He feared that the infrastructure had not been able to withstand the strength of the winds.
Upon arrival, however, he instantly realized that something even worse had happened to his beloved school. By the entrance was a smashed window, strongly suggesting a break-in. The kitchen had clearly been entered, closets had been opened, the cafeteria chairs and tables had been moved around, and water was on the floor.
The principal's mind began to race. What had the burglars taken from the school? What had they wanted? Moreover, he was confused about how the police had seemingly not been notified of the intruder by the alarm system. Before he could call them, though, they arrived at the school.
They explained to the school staff that as soon as the window had been broken, they had been called, but they weren't able to act. "Unfortunately, due to the deteriorating weather conditions, we were unable to respond immediately to the alarm," the Cheektowaga Police Department (CPD) later explained in a statement.
The Scene of the Crime
They had prioritized calls from those in need of physical assistance over break-ins. But now the snow had slightly melted, they were there - and they wanted to help the school discover who and what had caused this damage. Although the principal was sure it had been a break-in, they wanted to check all possible options.
They wrecked their brains over what had caused this destruction. "The officer made entry and checked the school, but nothing seemed out of place. They thought that maybe the damage was caused from the hurricane winds," the CPD explained later in a statement.
They knew there was only one way to find out for sure what had taken place on the worst night of the storm. With the principal, the CPD rushed to the newly installed CCTV cameras to see if they could get a clearer picture. Scrolling thoroughly through the footage, something suddenly made them jump...
There, on the screen, was a man walking confidently through the school corridor in an orange jacket. It was clear this man had broken into the school and caused all this damage, but this video did not give any explanation for the motive. First, they needed to check what had been taken.
Gripped to the screen, everyone feared the situation they were dealing with. As they kept watching, however, things took a turn for the worse when they saw the man had not been working alone that night. A group of people could be seen in the corridors, carrying furniture and electronics.
From the footage alone, it could be concluded that it had been a team of looters that had broken into the school to steal the items inside. Everyone was stunned. How had these people taken advantage of this storm and this unguarded building? Of all places, this would affect innocent kids.
Following the Clues
Now that they knew there had been people behind the damage, there was a sense of urgency to identify the culprits and hold them accountable for their actions. Hoping there would be some evidence lying around to help them, they got to work searching the school's building.
Walking through the school kitchen, cafeteria and classrooms, they couldn't help but notice how neat the intruders had been. Yes, it was clear they had been there - but at the same time, they appeared to have made an effort to tidy up after themselves. Something just wasn't adding up...
A Sudden Development
Just when they were starting to lose hope, they came across a piece of evidence that changed everything. There, on the cafeteria table, was a handwritten note which would soon take the investigation down an entirely different path. They could not believe what they were reading.
"To whomever it may concern, terribly sorry about breaking the school window and for breaking in the kitchen," the note read. "Merry Christmas, Jay," it finished. Immediately they understood they had interpreted the whole situation wrong. "It's not what you think," they updated the principal.
While they may have misread the entire situation, there was one matter that had remained the same - they needed to find the man in the orange jacket, who they now knew was named Jay. Within a few hours, the police began their investigation, posting his CCTV picture everywhere they could.
"Do you recognize "Jay?" the posts read. Asking the locals to help them pin down the man, they emphasized that although the man had, in fact, broken into the local school, he was not under arrest or in trouble. They had even gone as far as to label him a... hero. But why?
The locals were incredibly confused by the announcement, not understanding who this man was and how he could be a hero for breaking into the school. Everyone wanted answers and worked hard to help the authorities find out his full name and location.
Soon, thanks to the community's help, the man was identified as Jay Withey - a mechanic from the town of Cheektowaga. As soon as he had been found, many demanded to know the whole story. Finally, after the Police department had met with him, everything could be revealed to the public.
Setting the Story Straight
As word got around that Jay was ready to tell his story, NBC News and CNN tracked him down for an exclusive tell-all. With the mic held up, they asked him to retell the events of the night and why the authorities were hailing him as a hero.
Standing by his van with his hands casually in his pockets, it was evident that Jay was unimpressed by the cameras. It was clear that whatever he had done had not been for the fame. He talked quietly and calmly and began his tale from the very beginning...
"It Was All About Survival"
"It was all about survival," he recalled to NBC News. "You gotta think of others; I'm not thinking of myself only," he added. Until this point, it was still unclear how breaking into a school would help others, and viewers were still confused. Talking to CNN, he gave a more detailed recount.
He explained to the publication that on that night of the blizzard at 6 p.m., he received a call from his friend who was stranded in the snow and needed his assistance. "He said I'm the only person he knew that would come over, so I figured I would go get him," Withey recalled.
To the Rescue
While on the way to the location his friend had given him, he was shocked to see how many cars had been abandoned on the street in the snow. Navigating his way slowly and carefully through the obstacles, he kept his eyes sharply on his surroundings and the people walking away from their vehicles.
As much as Jay wished he could stop and help each person he passed, he knew he had to focus on his destination and rush to his friend's rescue. Jay had not had time to refill his fuel tank, so he was cautious about wasting fuel along the way. The sudden appearance of a man on the sidewalk forced his plans to change.
Picking Up Strangers
Jay looked out his van window at the man and knew he had to help him however he could. He was wearing just a thin jacket and sneakers, and it was clear he had no real destination. Stopping the van and opening his door, he called him over and told him to jump in the truck to get warm and keep safe.
The man, named Mike, happily obliged, climbing into the van's front seat and thanking Jay profusely for his kindness. At that point, neither of them could ever have known that this was just the beginning and that this driver would soon be going to extreme lengths on his behalf.
With Mike in the front seat warming up, Jay continued on his journey to save his friend. The two strangers struck up a conversation, only to be disrupted by a sudden stop. Quickly rushing out of the van to see what had happened, they saw the vehicle was trapped in the snow.
With spades in their hands, the two worked together to dig the truck out and get back on the road. Soon, however, it happened again, and this time the snow had piled up too high for them to escape. "I'm trying to dig myself out, but the snow is coming down just as fast as I'm shoveling," he recalled to CNN.
A Dire Situation
Jay's clothes were now soaked-through and providing him with no extra layers. The van's heater was keeping them both warm for now, but with just a quarter of fuel left in the tank, this was not a long-term solution. The road assistance team had not been able to help, so there was no saying how long they could be stuck there.
Things were not looking good, and Jay knew he needed to devise an alternative plan of action. After calling his friend to alert him that he wouldn't be able to make it over to him, he jumped out of the van once again and began pleading with strangers on the street to help. No one was interested.
With his and Mike's life at stake, Jay threw his pride to the side and tried one last attempt at escaping the cold. "I'm fearing for my life," he recalled to CNN. Mike remained in the truck while Jay knocked on the doors of the homes nearby and asked for shelter. The alternative was freezing to death.
However, just like the people on the street, no one was willing to help him. Withey told CNN he knocked on around 10 homes, even offering them $500 in exchange for shelter on their floor. "I plead with them, 'Please, please can I sleep on the floor, I'm in fear for my life,' and they say, 'No, I'm sorry.'"
A Race Against Time
Cold, wet, and homeless, Jay had no choice but to return to his van. While the heating would soon go out, he reckoned sitting inside might be slightly warmer than the outdoors. But to his dismay, he could not locate his van, walking through the snow aimlessly. He truly feared this was the end.
"My vision is getting foggy, my body is cramping up, and I'm fearing for my life," he recounted to CNN. The wind and snow had blocked his vision and caused him to lose his bearings. Finally, a flickering light appeared in the distance, the one he remembered he had parked his van next to.
Back in the van, Jay called roadside assistance again, pleading for their help. However, like last time, he was told there was nothing they could do. Exhausted by the day's events, he decided to take a quick nap to refuel his brain. Once he had slept, he would be able to come up with a new plan.
An hour into the nap, at 11 p.m., Jay was awoken by a tap on his truck door. There was an elderly woman named Mary begging Jay for his help. After hearing that she had been sitting in her van since 4 p.m., Jay told her to sit in his truck with them. But by the morning, the fuel had run out.
A Plan Is Hatched
The trio made their way over to Mary's van, which had a small amount of gas left and could keep them warm a few minutes longer. When a secondary issue arose, and Mary informed the men she needed the bathroom, Withey was forced to get creative. Checking the GPS, he had a bold idea...
To his surprise, he saw that there was a school nearby. "I say, 'I'm going to that school, and I'm going to break into that school because I know they have heat and a bathroom,'" Withey told CNN. Using brake pads, he smashed the school window and climbed in to open the door for the others. Immediately, the alarm began to beep.
With Mike and Mary safe inside the school, Jay headed back out the school gate to check if anyone else was in need. To his surprise, numerous people were standing there stranded and in need of shelter. "I walk outside in the immediate area, and there are a lot of older people that are stranded in their cars," Withey told CNN.
"One person had a dog, and I get them all into the school. At this point, I have about 10 people in the school." He told publications that the people ranged in age from 20 - 70, but they all needed assistance in different ways. He decided to help them in any way necessary and deal with the consequences later.
Searching for Resources
Jay escorted all the needy people into the school building and managed to turn off the shrieking alarm. Next, he made a mental list of what they needed. He searched through the cafeteria kitchen and found enough food and supplies to get the group through the night. He also found mats in the school gym for people to sleep in.
"I got cereal, water, juice, and apples and put them on the cafeteria table for them to eat, and I ate and drank something quick, and out I went out to look for more people. I walked and walked until I cried," he told NBC News. "Everyone is just so happy to be in the school and to be warm and have food," he told CNN.
A Christmas Miracle
To NBC's shock, Jay revealed he had remained in the school until Christmas day Sunday at 8 p.m., not leaving until he was sure everyone was safe. "You spent Christmas eve and most of Christmas Day in the school with strangers," the NBC reporter clarified. "Correct," Jay replied.
"What did you guys talk about?" the reporter pressed. "Everything…" He replied with a smile. "How thankful we are, just the different meanings of Christmas now," Jay noted that on Xmas morning, they used the school's supplies to blow snow off their cars. Here one man recognized him and apologized for rejecting him when he approached his door.
Just before he left the school premises for good, Jay had one more thing he needed to do. He found a piece of paper and pen in one of the classrooms and began to write the infamous letter that the authorities would later discover. Finally, it was time for the contents of the note to be revealed.
"I'm terribly sorry about breaking the school window and for breaking in the kitchen," it read. "Got stuck at 8 p.m. Friday and slept in my truck with two strangers, just trying not to die. There were 7 elderly people also stuck and out of fuel. I had to do it to save everyone and get them shelter and food and a bathroom."
A Different Perspective
The CPD revealed that after seeing this letter, they had rewatched the footage with a whole new perspective. What they saw confirmed everything Jay had written in his note. "We watched the video surveillance and witnessed people taking care of people," their statement read.
"There was a freezer full of food, but no one touched it," they continued. "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. They had 2 dogs they were also attending to."
Gone Without a Trace
Most of all, the CPD couldn't help but publicly praise the group of intruders who had taken extra care of the school and its facilities. They now understood that the site was left tidy because the group of people had no ill intentions; they were simply grateful for the shelter.
"When they were finally able to leave safely, you never would have known anyone was there. They plugged the smart boards back in and 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," the CPD noted.
Talking to CNN, Police Chief Brian Gould explained that due to Withey's isolated location, the team had not been able to reach them. He praised Withey's action and his commitment to the community. "We were absolutely shocked to see that he had over 20 people in the school (and) two dogs," he said.
"Not only a heroic action but just an overall good person," he continued. "He definitely saved some lives that day. Our Chief was able to speak to him and express our gratitude for his heroic actions. Jay said they are all now like family and planning a SUMMER get-together."
Once the CPD published this story on their Facebook page and released their statement with the details, people were in awe of this man. Thousands of people rushed to like the post and leave comments of praise. "Thank you, Jay, for your heroic thinking and effort," a Pine Hill Fire Department member wrote.
Although Jay told the press he was willing to pay for the broken window and all the resources they had taken, many locals expressed their desire to contribute to these payments. "We can replace the window. We can't replace lives," one person wrote. "Jay is a true hero!" another person agreed.
A Blessing in Disguise
Closing off the NBC interview, Jay told the reporter he was "alive," and so were the 24 people he protected. "I'm very humbled," he gushed. The man who risked his life and had the foresight to save all those people told CNN he saw the entire incident as a "blessing in disguise."
As far as he was concerned, if those people had not rejected him at their front doors, he would not have had the opportunity to save all those other people. Heartwarming stories and courageous people like this highlight that even in the worst of situations, humanity can still win.