Hundreds of motorists were stranded overnight on a 50-mile (80km) stretch of Interstate 95 in Virginia as heavy snow and a crash involving six tractor-trailers blocked travel lanes, authorities said.
The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) confirmed both directions of I-95 remained shut down on Tuesday around the Virginia city of Fredericksburg.
“Our crews are actively working to get everyone off 95. Plans are underway to guide vehicles currently stopped on the interstate to nearby interchanges, where they can access alternate routes,” the agency said in a Twitter message.
The tractor-trailer collision on Monday caused no injuries, but brought traffic to a standstill along the main US East Coast highway as the snow accumulated. Hours passed with hundreds of motorists posting increasingly desperate messages on social media about running out of fuel, food and water.
Marcie Parker, a Virginia Department of Transportation engineer leading the effort to clear the interstate, said crews were trying to first clear vehicles that could move on their own. Then they would tow disabled or abandoned ones and plow, she said, adding that the roadway was expected to be cleared for the Wednesday morning rush hour.
People could be seen walking down traffic lanes still covered with ice and snow.
Meera Rao and her husband, Raghavendra, were driving home from visiting their daughter in North Carolina when they got stuck on Monday evening. They were only 100 feet (30m) 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?”
More than 30cm (11 inches) of snow accumulated in areas around the traffic backup during Monday’s blizzard, according to the National Weather Service, and thousands of accidents and stranded vehicles were reported throughout central and northern Virginia.
US Senator Tim Kaine tweeted he was among those trapped in the backup for 19 hours. A scheduled vote in the Senate was delayed on Monday as legislators struggled to return to the Capitol.
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. pic.twitter.com/Sz1b1hZJZ5
— Tim Kaine (@timkaine) January 4, 2022
Virginia State Police responded to more than 2,000 calls for service due to treacherous road conditions, The Free Lance-Star newspaper in Fredericksburg reported.
Compounding the challenges, traffic cameras went offline as much of central Virginia lost power in the storm, VDOT said. More than 281,000 customers remained without electricity on Tuesday after heavy snow downed trees and power lines, according to poweroutage.us.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Emily Clementson, a truck driver, told NBC Washington. She urged stuck motorists to ask truck drivers if they have food or water to share, since many carry extra supplies in case they get stranded.
VDOT tweeted to the stranded drivers that reinforcements were arriving from other states to help get them moving again.
“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,” the tweet read. “It’s frustrating & scary. Please know our crews don’t stop. Crews will work 24/7 until ALL state-maintained roads are safe for travel.”
State police had warned people to avoid driving unless absolutely necessary, especially as evening and freezing temperatures set in.
“Due to the heavy snowfall concentrated in that area, road conditions rapidly turned treacherous for commercial and passenger vehicles,” state police reported in a press release.
“VSP troopers, wreckers, and VDOT crews continue to work as quickly as the weather and roads will safely permit to get stuck vehicles cleared and traffic moving again on I-95.”
— ۩͇̿V͇̿I͇̿P͇̿۩🎼 (@muad94_) January 4, 2022
Social media was flooded with posts from desperate drivers trapped for hours in their cars in freezing weather.
“We have been stuck here for 10+ hours we have dogs and have to go to the bathroom plus we need gas. No hotels around are open,” one driver tweeted.
The fast-moving storm forced the closure of federal offices and schools, grounded aeroplanes and knocked out electrical power for thousands of residents.
State and local emergency personnel worked through the night to clear downed trees, assist disabled vehicles and reroute drivers, Governor Ralph Northam said on Tuesday.
“While sunlight is expected to help @VaDOT clear the road, all Virginians should continue to avoid 1-95,” he tweeted.