Two men in the Buffalo area of New York are being credited with saving dozens of lives after an intense and deadly winter storm left motorists and pedestrians with nowhere to go last weekend.
In separate situations, Jay Withey and Craig Elston helped provide people with a warm place to ride out the storm and both are being praised as heroes for their efforts.
Elston, the owner of C&C Cutz barbershop in Buffalo, was attempting to “knock out a few haircuts” last Friday morning before returning home to start celebrating the holidays, reports The Buffalo News.
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However, as he wrapped up his duties, he realized the arctic weather conditions and worsening blizzard made it unsafe for him and a few of his clients to leave. Shortly after, people began showing up at his shop, desperate for a place to seek shelter.
He hopped online and began seeing reports of people dying in the storm. So he turned to TikTok and Facebook to invite anyone in the area who needed emergency shelter to seek refuge with him.
“I see people dead on Facebook. My first instinct is I got a building with heat and lights, like a lot of people don’t. Why not open my building up to the public?” Elston told Insider. “I genuinely just did it just so people would have somewhere to go.”
Meanwhile, Withey found himself low on fuel after he became stranded in the blizzard just east of Buffalo. He had ventured from the town of Cheektowaga around 6 p.m. to help a trapped friend, but got stranded in the snow himself.
He told NBC that he tried knocking on the doors of 10 nearby homes, pleading with residents and offering them $500 to let him sleep on their floor for the night, but was turned away each time.
Meanwhile, two other stranded people approached Withey and he offered space in his truck for them. A call to police proved futile – they told Withey that due to the dangerous conditions they were unable to rescue him.
Soaking wet and running low on fuel, he decided to leave his car and seek out a safe place to say.
He walked to a nearby school and broke a window so he could get inside. But instead of hunkering down, he headed back out into the storm to rescue the two others in his truck and look for other stranded motorists.
“My mission was just to keep going out and grabbing as many people as I can and to just keep going,” Withey told NBC. “I just kept walking, and I walked until I cried and I couldn’t walk any further. I was just beat.”
As they welcomed more people to safety, both men turned to gathering food and supplies to keep everyone comfortable.
Elston grabbed some money from the barbershop till and sent groups to a nearby convenience store to buy Vienna sausages, hot dogs, pizza pockets and bottled water. Withey pried open the school’s kitchen door to gather food.
Both men also made sure their groups were comfortable for the stay. Withey collected blankets from the school nurse’s office and gym mats, while Elston gave people haircut capes to use as blankets while they slept in reclined barber chairs and on the floor.
Elston told Insider that about 50 people came and went from his business over the weekend, until everyone could eventually get home by Tuesday evening. About 30 of them stayed all weekend, he said, while another 20 came in to charge their phones, call their families and warm up.
“People’s been reaching out to me calling me a hero,” Elston told Insider. “And the most I tell them is that I’m no hero. I’m just a person that got a heart.”
Withey left a note at the school, apologizing for smashing the school window and breaking the kitchen door.
“To whomever it may concern, I’m terribly sorry about breaking the school window and breaking in the kitchen,” the note began, as shared by the Cheektowaga Police Department on Twitter Dec. 29 in a post trying to find the Good Samaritan. “Got stuck at 8 pm Friday and slept in my truck with two strangers just trying not to die.”
“I had to do it to save everyone and get them shelter and food and a bathroom,” he wrote, explaining that there were elderly people that needed rescuing. He signed the note with “Merry Christmas Jay.”
Hours later, police shared that they had found Withey and expressed gratitude for his “heroic actions.”
Police also shared a photo of the group that spent the night at the school, saying that they plan to reunite in the summer and are “like family.”
Withey told CNN he views the ordeal as a blessing in disguise. If one of the homes he was turned away from had taken him up on his pleas, he would have not been able to help the two dozen others he rescued.
At least 37 people died in the Buffalo blizzard, reports USA Today. A combination of snowfall, hurricane-force winds, aging infrastructure and lack of preparedness have been blamed for the high death toll.
A series of storms across North America over the past week have left hundreds of thousands of people without power and stranded in airports, and chaos in both the airline and railway systems.