If you don’t want to end up in a nightmare situation, avoid Interstate 95 in Virginia. According to VA officials, emergency workers are still rescuing drivers stranded on the highway by Monday’s winter weather.
Have you or someone you know been stuck on I-95? Tell WTOP about your experiences.
If you don’t want to end up in a nightmare situation, avoid Interstate 95 in Virginia.
A horrendous traffic jam that began during Monday morning’s record-breaking winter storm grew steadily worse with plummeting overnight temperatures causing melting snow to refreeze. The WTOP Traffic Center tracked at least four trouble spots on I-95 alone from spinouts in icy conditions, each involving multiple spinouts including tractor-trailers.
In a phone call with reporters late Tuesday morning, Virginia’s Department of Transportation (VDOT), Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) and the State Police gave a situational update.
Officials said they have closed northbound and southbound Interstate 95 from exit 152 (Dumfries Road) to exit 104 (Carmel Church) as crews continue work to remove stopped trucks, treat for icing and plow snow. Motorists should avoid the area, or use local routes to reach their destinations.
The shut down of I-95 began at 8 a.m. Wednesday morning, according to Marcie Parker, district engineer with VDOT. Parker said the state anticipates those areas being open and clear for Wednesday morning’s rush-hour.
Hundreds of vehicles have been at a standstill, some for almost 24 hours, shutting off their engines in frigid weather to conserve dwindling fuel, many with little to no food or water.
“We know that there were an enormous amount of vehicles that were stuck for many, many hours, which we find completely unacceptable,” said Parker.
Parker said the number one priority is to get all stuck motorists off the highway so “we’ll be able to send the plows and the motor graders off to cut out the ice and snow that has frozen to the roadway.”
One of the biggest obstacles to current operations are vehicles, including large tractor-trailers, that have run out of fuel while being stuck on the highway.
“They’re either stuck in the snow or in a ditch, so that requires a tow truck — lots of tow trucks — to get those vehicles out,” Parker said.
For those who remain stranded after being towed from the highway, Parker said state and local police are trying to assist by “providing them water, or fuel, or a blanket and letting them know where they can go. If they need shelter, all the localities either have, or are opening a shelter by the end of the day to help anybody who can’t continue onto their final destination.”
In addition to clearing and treating the interstate, Parker said clearing fallen trees and ice at highway exits and their surrounding has been a major task.
There have been no traffic related injuries or deaths reported as a result of the emergency on I-95, according to Corinne Geller, public relations manager for Virginia State Police.
Geller recommends, for people who have to travel along the interstate Tuesday, that they get off the main highway well before those exits where closures begin.
“Otherwise, you’re going to get stuck in the queue. You’re gonna get stuck in congestion and the backlog of everyone trying to filter off the interstate at one location.”
Geller said, as of 8:30 Tuesday morning, Virginia State Police had responded to 1,015 traffic crashes related to the recent winter weather. That number doesn’t include incidents on 1-95 since the backup began.
Throughout Monday morning, VDOT was in the process of guiding vehicles stopped on the interstate to nearby interchanges, where they could access alternate routes. WTOP’s Neal Augenstein reported stranded drivers are now getting off southbound I-95 at Exit 152 for Route 234/Dumfries Road, albeit slowly.
“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,” Northam’s office said in a statement, adding that state police had responded to over 1,000 crashes since midnight.
“While sunlight is expected to help VDOT treat and clear roads, all Virginians must continue to avoid the interstate and follow directions of emergency personnel.”
WTOP traffic reporter Dave Dildine called the crisis a worst-case scenario.
“Some people were seen abandoning their vehicles in snow-covered travel lanes, walking down I-95 to parts unknown,” Dildine said. “Some callers were sobbing and scared. Psychologically is it extremely distressing to be motionless on a highway for hours on end without knowing how much longer it will last.”
Addressing criticism over a sluggish response and a lack of communication with the public and media, Northam told WTOP Tuesday that the state has all its resources on the I-95 cloture and that the Virginia National Guard is available to assist motorists but had not been called on yet.
“We’re doing everything we can to get to them, we have the resources in place to clear this up,” Northam said, hoping that the sunlight would aid efforts to clear the road. “Let me just remind you and your listeners that this is one of the worst storms we’ve seen in decades … Mother Nature is a force.”
Northam said that food and warming shelters are being established for drivers. He echoed calls from highway officials for commuters to avoid I-95, but did not provide a time frame for its reopening.
“We don’t need more people on the highways, we need to clear the highway,” the governor added. “So I would ask people to stay off our roads until we can get them clear.”
WTOP’s Neal Augenstein reports from southbound I-95 near Dumfries Road
Regional officials promised major highways had been pretreated and fleets of plows made ready to roll out before Monday. But snowfall rates of up to 3 inches per hour and a high volume of traffic made for a perfect storm rivaling other notorious travel disasters in recent memory.
Trapped commuters on I-95 ran out of gas with kids and pets in their car. Drivers were forced to spend the overnight on the highway with no bathrooms nearby and temperatures plunging into the low 20s.
“We need to take my dad to an essential surgery in Massachusetts by 7:30 a.m. tomorrow,” one driver wrote to WTOP. Another: “We left Gaithersburg at 4:50 a.m. to attend my father’s funeral in Hampton. Doesn’t look like we are going to make it.”
In the last few minutes emergency vehicles have traveled up the Express Lanes. Crew members have walked across grassy median, and touched base w some stranded drivers. Perhaps seeing if emergency help is needed. Nobody transported from my vantage point @WTOPtraffic @WTOPtraffic pic.twitter.com/EhZhqRF6cz
— Neal Augenstein (@AugensteinWTOP) Jan. 4, 2022
“We’ve been parked here for five hours south of Quantico,” said Claire Hughes, a commuter on I-95. “We have seen no tow trucks, no broken-down vehicles, no police trying to open lanes up. It’s just a standstill parking lot … it’s atrocious.”
NBC News correspondent Josh Lederman found himself in a traffic jam about half an hour south of the District on Monday afternoon. As of around daybreak on Tuesday, he still hadn’t budged. In a Twitter thread, Lederman said people were taking exercise breaks and walking their dogs between derelict vehicles.
Like thousands of others, Lederman — accompanied by his dog Jonas — spent the cold night on the interstate nervously eyeing the fuel gauge, going hours without seeing police or plows. Lederman melted snow for his dog to drink.
“I have some gum and about a third of a bottle of water. If things get really bad, I’ve got food for my dog, but I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that,” Lederman told WTOP by phone. “If you were in an emergency right now, there is absolutely no way anybody could get to you for something medical or otherwise. People who are here are just stuck.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., tweeted Tuesday that he, too, had become stranded on the highway headed for Washington: “I started my normal 2-hour drive to D.C. at 1 p.m. yesterday. Nineteen hours later, I’m still not near the Capitol.”
Dildine explained that the paralysis was triggered by heavy snow and too many cars for road conditions to sustain.
“The heavy burst of snow Monday morning set off a chain reaction of truck crashes and stalled vehicles,” Dildine said. “As traffic initially lurched to a stop, snow rapidly piled up between vehicles. With plows unable to reach the snow-covered mainline, more drivers began spinning their wheels and the severity of the bottlenecks continued to worsen.”
VDOT spokeswoman Kelly Hannon said late Monday that crews are concentrating their efforts on clearing blocked trucks and treating road surfaces for several inches of snow and ice accumulation.
“We know this has been unprecedented and people have been stuck for prolonged periods and we remain at work through the night to get things moving again,” Hannon said. “We certainly understand and empathize with the distress that so many people are going through, and again, our whole mission is to keep traffic moving.”
WTOP’s Colleen Kelleher, Joshua Barlow, Matt Small and Dick Uliano contributed to this report.