Hundreds stranded all night in freezing temperatures on snowy US highway
Hundreds of motorists were stranded for nearly 24 hours in freezing temperatures along a 50-mile stretch of highway in the US state of Virginia which became impassable when lorries jack-knifed in a winter storm. The disabled trucks triggered a chain reaction 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.
Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg (Virginia Department of Transportation/AP)
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 100ft 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 9am, 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. Governor Ralph Northam said his team responded through the night, sending emergency messages to connect drivers with help and working with local officials to set up warming shelters. He said he could not provide an estimate for when I-95 would reopen or how many vehicles remained stranded.
Transportation Department engineer Marcie Parker said the agency expected to finish clearing the interstate by Tuesday night and it should be open for the Wednesday morning rush hour. People who were stranded overnight and their families lashed out at Mr Northam on Twitter, asking why the National Guard was not deployed.
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. While sunlight is expected to help @VaDOT clear the road, all Virginians should continue to avoid 1-95.
— Governor Ralph Northam (@GovernorVA) January 4, 2022
He said he opted not to request National Guard help because the issue facing state crews was not a lack of manpower but the difficulty of getting workers and equipment through the snow and ice to where they needed to be. He said that effort was complicated by disabled vehicles, freezing temperatures and ice. Ms Rao said they stopped their car engine at least 30 times to conserve fuel and ran the heat just enough to keep warm.
Finally, at around mid morning on 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,” she said. “I literally was in tears.” Up to 11in 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 night-time temperatures set in.
Compounding the challenges, traffic cameras went offline as much of central Virginia lost power in the storm, the transportation department said.
Senator Tim Kaine, who lives in Richmond, said he was stuck in his car 21 hours after starting his two-hour commute to the Capitol in Washington DC at 1pm on Monday.
“This has been a miserable experience,” he told WTOP. He described camaraderie among those who were stranded, including a Connecticut family returning from a Florida vacation who walked up and down lines of parked cars sharing a bag of oranges. In Prince William County, emergency crews responded 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. Also stranded was NBC News correspondent Josh Lederman, who spoke on NBC’s Today show on Tuesday by video feed from his car. He said he had been stuck about 30 miles south of Washington since 8pm on Monday.
“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 26F (minus 3C), and there’s no way that anybody can get to you in this situation.”
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