An “unprecedented” traffic jam amid a foot of snow and icy roads has forced hundreds of motorists to spend the night in their vehicles on Interstate 95 in Virginia between Richmond and Washington, DC.
The horror gridlock along both directions of the 50-mile stretch of road was the result of a nightmarish confluence of factors: A winter storm dumped 12 inches of snow in the Fredericksburg area on Monday, freezing temperatures saw the roads turn to ice, trucks and tractor trailers slid and crashed into one another, downed trees turned into yet more roadblocks, and then yet more snow and ice accumulated around the disabled vehicles, making it exceedingly difficult for rescue workers to clear the roads.
The chaos ensnared scores of drivers for interminable lengths of time, some of whom were driving home after the holidays, others doing what was supposed to be a quick errand.
"I thought I'd just throw the dogs in the car — it's only an hour drive, it should be fine," said Susan Phalen, who left for her house in Alexandria from her parents' home in Fredericksburg around 8 p.m. after they lost power there.
Phalen said she was without internet when she set out on her journey and wasn't able to see warnings online to avoid the I-95 until it was too late.
"The traffic rolled pretty easily around 20 mph for the first 4 or 5 miles, and then it came to an abrupt halt," she said.
As time dragged on, Phalen began feeling despondent. "You keep hoping for the best and thinking that any minute the traffic will go, and then the hours wear on," she said. "It just gets frustrating."
Phalen said that while she was able to stay warm by keeping her car idling due to a full tank of gas, she worried for those in the cars around her. If things got worse, she said, she thought she could try to escape on foot with her dogs, but she worried for older drivers or motorists with young children.
"What starts as a frustrating situation turns into a crisis for a lot of people," she said.
Despondent motorists reported not seeing any state troopers or plows for hours, but Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) officials tried to assure them they were on the case.
“We wish we had a timetable, ETA, or an educated guess on when travel will resume on I-95. It's at a standstill in our area with multiple incidents,” VDOT officials wrote on Twitter on Monday night. “It's frustrating & scary. Please know our crews don't stop.”
VDOT said it was aware of some drivers who had been stuck on the interstate since Monday morning.
“This is unprecedented,” VDOT Fredericksburg District Engineer Marcie Parker said in a statement, “and we continue to steadily move stopped trucks to make progress toward restoring lanes.”
Among those stuck was one of the state’s own senators, Tim Kaine, who wrote on Twitter that what should have been a two-hour drive from his home in Virginia to DC had ballooned into 19 hours.
NBC News reporter Josh Lederman was another driver forced to spend the night with his dog in the backseat. As day broke, he began doing TV hits live from his stranded vehicle.
Gov. Ralph Northam said state officials had worked through the night to try to clear I-95.
“State and local emergency personnel are continuing to clear downed trees, assist disabled vehicles, and reroute drivers,” Northam said. “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.”
Speaking in a Twitter Space for trapped motorists, one man said he survived the night by eating chocolate-covered cherries he had been gifted at Christmas. Another said he had been at a standstill since 11 p.m. just 1 mile from his house but didn’t want to abandon his car despite being frustratingly close to home.
“My car was also stuck in the middle of the road. I didn’t know the situation,” he said. “Unless it’s valet, I ain’t leaving it."
It took until late Tuesday afternoon for VDOT to finally announce there were no longer any stranded people. "Less than 20 vehicles left to be removed from the interstate before plow trains will come through to remove snow and ice from the travel lanes," officials said in a tweet.
Phalen finally reached her Alexandria home around 16 hours after she had first set out, relieved that she was able to feed her dogs and shower. She was also looking forward to getting some rest after staying awake all night: "I didn't sleep because I thought that sure enough I'll fall asleep and then the traffic will move and I'll be the one to slow things down."