- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Transportation officials said Interstate 95 had been mostly cleared early Tuesday evening of the hundreds of stranded motorists stuck in their vehicles, many of them overnight, after icy conditions led to crashes involving tractor-trailers that closed the highway in both directions near Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Drivers stuck in the massive backups shared food from vehicle to vehicle, posted pleas for help on social media and cut their engines to conserve fuel in the frigid temperatures as they waited for rescue crews that didn’t arrive for hours.

“Some people were seen abandoning their vehicles in snow-covered travel lanes, walking down I-95 to parts unknown,” WTOP traffic reporter David Dildine said in a story for the outlet. “Some callers were sobbing and scared. Psychologically it is extremely distressing to be motionless on a highway for hours on end without knowing how much longer it will last.”

The Associated Press said the chaos on I-95 began Monday afternoon following a crash involving six tractor-trailers, though no injuries were reported.

“Crews are working to reopen I-95 as soon as possible,” the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) tweeted Tuesday late morning. “Traffic is being detoured to the nearest interchange between Caroline County and Prince William County. Work continues to remove disabled vehicles and tractor-trailers from the travel lanes.”

A single lane of traffic began weaving slowly forward between many stalled trucks and cars in one direction by 9 a.m., while some people walked down traffic lanes still covered with ice and snow, AP reported. Around noon Tuesday, VDOT said it was actively detouring motorists on I-95 between Caroline County and Prince William County.

The agency said that once vehicles, including disabled tractor-trailers, have been removed, its plow train will remove the packed snow and ice.

At around 5:15 p.m. Tuesday, VDOT tweeted that there were no people stranded still on I-95 and said less than 20 vehicles were left to be removed from the interstate before plow trains come through to remove snow and ice from the travel lanes.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, said Tuesday the interstate worsened after midnight when everything turned to ice and there were more accidents.

He said the area first had rain on Monday so transportation staff couldn’t adequately treat the roads followed by slushy snow that fell at a faster rate than slow plows could move it. Temperatures then dropped below freezing. 

“All those together created the perfect storm for what happened on I-95 last night: multiple jack-knifed tractor-trailers blocking the highway and leading to miles of backup with people stuck in their cars for many hours,” he said, describing it as an incredibly unusual event. “We were prepared for the storm that was predicted: a few inches of snow. But instead, Mother Nature sent more than a foot of snow to the Fredericksburg area.” 

People stranded overnight and their families criticized the governor on Twitter, asking why he hadn’t declared a state of emergency or deployed the National Guard to assist with rescue efforts.

Mr. Northam defended his team’s response, saying the state is doing everything in its power to respond to a heavy storm and that various agencies are working as quickly as they can to clear the roads, move traffic along and make sure everyone is safe. 

He said declaring a state of emergency is something that needs to happen hours or days before an event takes place and is not used as a rapid response strategy. The governor added the National Guard did not receive requests from jurisdictions to help with I-95, noting it takes hours to deploy these members. 

VDOT Commissioner Stephen Brich said Tuesday late afternoon that the department made a great deal of progress throughout the day, noting crews have been working relentlessly to clear the highway. 

The interstate south of Washington is a busy corridor on a normal day, but the East Coast snowstorm turned it into a half-day nightmare for many motorists.

The winter storm on Monday blew in about four to 12 inches of snowfall to the nation’s capital and its surrounding areas. Officials urged people to stay off the roads and avoid traveling unless absolutely necessary due to the snowfall and dipping temperatures.

Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, was caught in the traffic jam and tweeted Tuesday morning, “I started my normal 2 hour drive to DC at 1pm yesterday. 19 hours later, I’m still not near the Capitol. My office is in touch with @VaDOT to see how we can help other Virginians in this situation. Please stay safe everyone.”

The senator, still in his car, told WTOP the trip from Richmond to Washington flipped at some point from “a miserable experience” to a “survival project.”

“We’re so packed on the interstate, it is really hard to get an emergency vehicle in,” said Mr. Kaine, who was supposed to preside in the Senate chamber Tuesday and had to find a substitute. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

He did see “some nice camaraderie” among some of those who were stopped, saying a family headed to Connecticut after a Florida vacation passed out oranges to other motorists.

At around 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, the senator tweeted that he arrived at the Capitol after 27 hours on the road.

NBC reporter Josh Lederman said on Twitter he was stuck for hours with his dog, forcing him to put snow in his bowl so the pup would have something to drink.

“I can see thousands of cars from where I am on the highway on I-95 have been in their cars overnight without food, without water,” he said Tuesday morning during an interview with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “Nobody knows how long we’re going to be here and how we’re going to get out.”

“Around the 5-hour mark, it felt like it shifted from really inconvenient to a little scary,” he tweeted. “Folks started turning their cars off, conserving gas, while we wait. It’s 27 degrees outside. There is no way for medical or emergency personnel to reach people stuck in this.”

He said northbound lanes began moving early Tuesday, but southbound lanes were stuck for miles.

“An emergency message is going to all stranded drivers connecting them to support, and the state is working with localities to open a warming shelter for passengers, as needed,” Mr. Northam tweeted. “While sunlight is expected to help VDOT clear roads, all Virginians must continue to avoid I-95.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

• Shen Wu Tan can be reached at stan@washingtontimes.com.

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