The last of the hundreds of motorists stranded on a highway in Virginia – some for nearly a day – by a winter storm have been evacuated, officials said early Tuesday evening.
The storm thundered traffic and left some drivers stranded for nearly 24 hours in freezing temperatures along an impassable stretch of highway south of Washington.
The problems began Monday morning when a truck jacked up on Interstate 95, the main north-south highway along the East Coast, setting off a rapid chain reaction as other vehicles lost control state police said. Two-way lanes were blocked on a 65-kilometer stretch of I-95 north of Richmond, Virginia.
As the hours passed and night fell, motorists posted messages on social media about the lack of fuel, food and water.
Meera Rao and her husband Raghavendra were driving home after visiting their daughter in North Carolina when they got stranded on Monday night. They were only 30 meters from an exit but could not move for about 16 hours.
“Not a single policeman [officer] came within 16 hours we were stuck, ”she said. ” Nobody came. It was just shocking. Being in the most advanced country in the world, no one knew how to clear a way so we could all get out of this mess? “
There were no immediate reports of serious injuries or fatalities.
Towards dawn, en route crews began helping drivers get off “at any available interchange,” the Virginia Department of Transportation tweeted.
By early evening, only about 20 cars were left on the affected section of road and no one was left stranded, a department spokesperson said.
Some motorists on the freeway may still be bypassing closures, the agency said.
An Associated Press photographer who flew in a helicopter along an 80-kilometer stretch of highway observed a dozen groups of vehicles stranded on Tuesday afternoon.
The crews first tried to clear vehicles that could move on their own. Then they would tow the disabled or abandoned and plow, said Marcie Parker, a Virginia Department of Transportation engineer leading the effort. She expected the pavement to be clear for the rush hour on Wednesday morning.
People could be seen walking in traffic lanes still covered in ice and snow.
Critique of the State Response
Gov. Ralph Northam said his team had responded through the night, sending emergency messages to put drivers in touch with help and working with local authorities to set up heated shelters as needed. Officials told reporters that teams were helping distribute food, water and fuel.
People stranded overnight and their families blasted Northam on Twitter, asking why the National Guard had not been deployed.
Northam said in an interview that he chose not to seek National Guard help because the problem facing state crews was not a lack of manpower but the difficulty to get workers and equipment through snow and ice to where they need to be. He said efforts were complicated by broken down vehicles, freezing temperatures and ice.
The affected section of road was not pretreated, Parker said, as heavy rain preceded snow, which at times fell as much as two centimeters per hour.
“It was just too much for us to follow,” she said.
The storm also left passengers on an Amtrak train stranded in Virginia. Amtrak’s Crescent left New Orleans on Sunday for New York and got stranded near Lynchburg on Monday morning when downed trees blocked the tracks.
Passenger Sean Thornton told AP Amtrak was providing food, but the toilets were overflowing and the passengers were furious. Amtrak has scheduled the train to end its trip once the tracks are clear.
Back on the freeway, Rao said they had turned off their car’s engine at least 30 times to save gas, and had just warmed up enough to warm up. They had chips, nuts and apples to eat, but Rao didn’t want to drink bottled water because she had a sprained ankle and didn’t think she could reach a makeshift toilet.
Finally, around mid-morning on Tuesday, a tow truck driver appeared and cleared away the snow, allowing the Raos and the other cars to back up and take the exit.
“He was a messenger from God,” Rao said. “I was literally in tears.”
Senator among those blocked
Up to 28 centimeters of snow fell in the area in Monday’s storm, according to the National Weather Service, and state police have warned people to avoid driving unless absolutely necessary.
To make matters worse, traffic cameras went offline as much of central Virginia lost power in the storm, the Department of Transportation said.
Sen. Tim Kaine, who lives in Richmond, told WTOP on Tuesday morning that he was stuck in his car for 21 hours after starting his two-hour drive to the Capitol at 1 p.m. Monday.
“It’s been a miserable experience,” Kaine said. The traffic was so heavy that emergency vehicles struggled to remove disabled cars and trucks, he said.
Kaine described the camaraderie among those stranded, including a Connecticut family returning from vacation in Florida who paced lines of parked cars sharing a sack of oranges.
A CT family returning from Florida in a crowded car passed in the middle of the night handing out oranges as we stood for hours on I-95. Bless them! pic.twitter.com/MrmZ1ZF6JJ
Late Tuesday afternoon it tweeted that he had finally reached the Capitol “after a 27 hour drive”.
Darryl Walter, of Bethesda, Md., Was stranded for 10 hours on his way home from a Florida beach vacation with his wife, son and dog, Brisket.
They had a few bottles of water, bags of crisps, a blanket to warm up and Trivial Pursuit to pass the time. Walter said the worst part of the ordeal was not knowing how long it would last.
Walter said he felt lucky that he was able to return home as soon as they did, knowing that many more were stranded for much longer. They passed a long line of cars heading south that couldn’t get past the jackknifed trucks.
“It had to be 15 miles of backup,” he said.
“Always pack a Snickers bar”
A planned hour’s drive 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 didn’t budge for about 10 hours.
After a freezing night with no sleep, no food or water, she pulled into the driveway of her Alexandria, Va. Home just before noon on Tuesday.
“Mom was right: always pack a Snickers bar,” said Phelan, a former federal communications officer.
“At some point in the traffic jam, I was going to have to start knocking on the windows asking for water. At that point, everyone was helping everyone. If you needed anything, it wasn’t. was not a problem. “
NBC News correspondent Josh Lederman, who spoke on NBC Today Pin up Tuesday via his car’s video feed. He said he had been stuck about 50 kilometers south of Washington since 8 p.m. Monday.
There’s nothing to do except tweet at this point, so why not have a thread.
The highway is absolutely littered with broken down vehicles. Not just cars. Seedlings, everything. No one can move. People run out of gas or abandon their vehicles. (2)
In Prince William County, Va., Emergency crews responded to 10 calls from motorists on Tuesday, including complaints of hypothermia and diabetics concerned about a prolonged lack of food, said Matt Smolsky, deputy chief of staff. firefighters. None of the calls were life threatening, but four patients were transported.
Teams used the expressways that separate the north and southbound lanes to reach patients, he said.
Parker said the position of the traffic safeguards relative to express lanes meant they weren’t very helpful in clearing traffic jams.
Kelly Hannon, spokesperson for the Department of Transportation, apologized to motorists and said the department would examine the incident “comprehensively”.