RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Hundreds of motorists waited desperately for help Tuesday after being stranded all night 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, state police said.
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. 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?”
Around daybreak, road crews began helping drivers get off “at any available interchange to get them,” 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, while people could be seen walking down traffic lanes still covered with ice and snow. Crews were working to remove stopped trucks, plow snow, de-ice the pavement and guide stranded motorists to the nearest exits, transportation officials said.
Gov. Ralph Northam said his team responded through the night, sending out emergency messages to connect stranded drivers with help and working with local officials to set up warming shelters as needed. He could not say when the situation would be resolved.
“Right now, things aren’t moving, as you know, and as you can see on the cameras,” Northam told radio station WTOP Tuesday morning.
The governor said he was not aware of any serious injuries that resulted from the mess.
People who were stranded overnight and their families lashed out at Northam on Twitter, asking why the National Guard was not deployed to rescue stranded motorists or offer them food or other assistance.
The governor said the National Guard was “available” but he had not yet called upon Guard members to help.
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 a couple of other cars back up and take the exit.
“He was a messenger from God,” Rao said. “I literally was in tears.”
Seven 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.
Sen. Tim Kaine, who lives in Richmond, said he was stuck in his car 21 hours after starting his two-hour commute to the Capitol at 1 p.m. Monday.
“This has been a miserable experience,” Kaine told WTOP. Traffic was so tightly packed that emergency vehicles struggled to remove disabled cars and trucks, he said.
Kaine 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.
Still, spending the overnight hours in frigid weather was “nerve-wracking,” he said.
Darryl Walter, 57, of Bethesda, Maryland, was stuck for 10 hours as he drove home from a Florida beach vacation with his wife, 26-year-old son and dog, Brisket. For roughly five of those hours, they turned off their car until northbound traffic started crawling again.
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.
“We didn’t see plows out there,” he said. “Snow removal has always been a joke in this area.”
Still, Walter feels 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 jack-knifed trucks. “It had to be 15 miles of backup,” Walter said.
Also stranded was NBC News correspondent Josh Lederman, who spoke on NBC’s “Today” show on Tuesday via video feed from his car, with a dog in the back seat. He said he had been stuck about 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of Washington since 8 p.m. Monday.
“We started to see a lot of drivers turning their cars off to conserve gas, people running out of food and water, kids and pets holed up for so many hours, people letting their pets out of the car to try to walk them on the street,” said Lederman, a former White House reporter for The Associated Press.
There were no signs of any emergency vehicles, he said.
“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.”