Hundreds of motorists waited desperately for help Tuesday after being stranded for nearly 24 hours in freezing temperatures along a 50-mile stretch of highway south of the nation's capital that became impassable when tractor-trailers jackknifed in a winter storm.
What You Need To Know
- Hundreds of motorists are waiting desperately for help after being stranded all night in freezing temperatures along a 50-mile stretch of highway south of the nation’s capital
- Police say that part of Interstate 95 became impassable when tractor-trailers jackknifed in a winter storm
- The disabled trucks triggered a chain reaction as other vehicles lost control and blocked lanes in both directions of the main north-south highway along the East Coast
- As hours passed and night fell, motorists posted messages on social media about running out of fuel, food and water
- By Tuesday morning, a single lane of traffic was creeping forward between many stalled trucks and cars in one direction
The disabled trucks triggered a chain reaction Monday as other vehicles lost control and blocked lanes in both directions of Interstate 95, the main north-south highway along the East Coast, police said. As hours passed and night fell, motorists posted messages on social media about running out of fuel, food and water.
Meera Rao and her husband, Raghavendra, were driving home from visiting their daughter in North Carolina when they got stuck Monday evening. They were only 100 feet past an exit but could not move for roughly 16 hours.
“Not one police (officer) came in the 16 hours we were stuck,” she said. “No one came. It was just shocking. Being in the most advanced country in the world, no one knew how to even clear one lane for all of us to get out of that mess?”
There were no immediate reports of serious injuries.
Around daybreak, road crews began helping drivers get off “at any available interchange," the Virginia Department of Transportation tweeted.
By 9 a.m., a single lane of traffic was creeping forward between many stalled trucks and cars in one direction. People could be seen walking down traffic lanes still covered with ice and snow.
Crews were working to tow the stopped trucks and to remove snow and ice while guiding stranded motorists to the nearest exits, transportation officials said.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam wrote on Twitter that his team has worked through the night to respond to the situation, along with the state police, Department of Transportation and Virginia's Emergency Management Office.
"State and local emergency personnel are continuing to clear downed trees, assist disabled vehicles, and re-route drivers," Northam wrote. "An emergency message is going to all stranded drivers connecting them to support, and the state is working with localities to open warming shelters as needed."
Northam urged all motorists to avoid I-95 as crews work to clear the roadway. Northam told multiple news outlets Tuesday that the state's National Guard is available to aid, but has not yet been deployed.
"We have all our resources on 95 trying to clear this," Northam told WTOP. "We’re doing everything that we can to get to them."
Heavy rain that preceded the storm made it difficult to pretreat roads, and conditions began to deteriorate around midnight, he added.
Rao said they stopped their car engine at least 30 times to conserve gas and ran the heat just enough to get warm. They had some potato chips, nuts and apples to eat, but Rao did not want to drink any bottled water because she had a sprained ankle and did not think she could reach a makeshift restroom.
Finally, around midmorning Tuesday, a tow truck driver appeared and cleared away snow, allowing the Raos and other cars back up and take the exit.
“He was a messenger from God,” Rao said. “I literally was in tears.”
Up to 11 inches of snow fell in the area during Monday’s blizzard, according to the National Weather Service, and state police had warned people to avoid driving unless absolutely necessary, especially as colder nighttime temperatures set in.
Compounding the challenges, traffic cameras went offline as much of central Virginia lost power in the storm, the transportation department said.
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine wrote on Twitter that he started his normal commute from Virginia to the U.S. Capitol at 1 p.m on Monday, which typically takes two hours. It took him nearly 27 hours to reach the Capitol.
"My office is in touch with [the Virginia Department of Transportation] to see how we can help other Virginians in this situation," the former vice presidential candidate wrote in a Twitter post Tuesday morning. "Please stay safe everyone."
Kaine later shared on Twitter that a Connecticut family driving back from Florida "walked by in the middle of the night handing out oranges as we were stopped for hours on I-95. Bless them!"
Darryl Walter, of Bethesda, Maryland, was stuck for 10 hours as he drove home from a Florida beach vacation with his wife, son and dog Brisket.
They had a few bottles of water, some bags of chips, a blanket for warmth and Trivial Pursuit to pass the time. Walter said the worst part of the ordeal was not knowing how long it would last.
Walter felt fortunate that they were able to make it home as soon as they did knowing that many others remained stranded for much longer. They passed a long line of southbound cars that were unable to get past the jackknifed trucks.
“It had to be 15 miles of backup,” he said.
A planned one-hour drive home from her parents’ house turned into a 16-hour nightmare for Susan Phelan when she got stuck in the northbound lanes of I-95 and did not move for roughly 10 hours.
After a frigid night without sleep, food or water, she pulled into the driveway at her Alexandria, Virginia, home just before noon Tuesday.
“Mom was right: Always pack a Snickers bar,” said Phelan, a former federal communications officer. “At some point in the gridlock, I was going to have to start knocking on windows asking for water. At that point, everybody was helping everybody. If you needed something, it was not a problem.”
In Prince William County, emergency crews responded Tuesday to 10 calls from motorists, including complaints about hypothermia and diabetics concerned about a prolonged lack of food, said Matt Smolsky, assistant fire chief. None of the calls were life-threatening, but four patients were transported.
Crews used the express lanes that separate the northbound and southbound lanes to reach patients, he said.
Also stranded was NBC News correspondent Josh Lederman, who spoke on NBC’s “Today” show on Tuesday via video feed from his car. He said he had been stuck about 30 miles south of Washington since 8 p.m. Monday.
There were no signs of any emergency vehicles, said Lederman, a former White House reporter for The Associated Press.
"You really start to think if there was a medical emergency, someone that was out of gas and out of heat — you know it’s 26 degrees, and there’s no way that anybody can get to you in this situation.”