Drivers along a 50-mile stretch of Interstate 95 in Virginia have been stranded in freezing temperatures for hours after a crash involving multiple vehicles brought the roadway to a standstill and the first mid-Atlantic storm of the year dumped more than a foot of snow on the region.
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine is among those caught in the chaos, with the Democrat from Virginia saying he has been stuck in traffic for at least 19 hours.
“I started my normal 2 hour drive to DC at 1pm yesterday. 19 hours later, I’m still not near the Capitol,” he wrote Tuesday morning in a tweet.
Kaine said his office was in touch with the Virginia Department of Transportation “to see how we can help other Virginians in this situation.”
“Please stay safe everyone,” he said.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said his office was working to respond to the situation on the I-95.
“State and local emergency personnel are continuing to clear downed trees, assist disabled vehicles, and re-route drivers,” he said in a tweet.
“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,” he said as he urged drivers to continue to avoid the interstate.
Seb Lancaster, a 21-year-old film and television student at Boston University, was on his way to visit his father in Connecticut with his twin sister, her boyfriend and his dog when they got on the interstate and found themselves stuck, forcing them to spend the night trapped in a frigid vehicle.
“My parents are immunocompromised and I assumed road travel would be safer than omicron flights,” he said, referring to the highly transmissible Covid variant.
Lancaster said he entered the traffic jam just after 3 p.m. on Monday, when there was “a little movement for awhile,” allowing drivers to edge forward.
However, at around 11 p.m., he said traffic came to a “standstill,” leaving him and his passengers trapped in their vehicle in the hours since.
Like a scene from ‘La La Land’
“Just after midnight the street was packed like the flashmob in ‘La La Land,’ ” he said, referring to the opening scene from the hit film starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling when trapped motorists exited their cars for a joyful performance of “Another Day of Sun.”
“Though it was much grimmer,” he said, “with people crying, smoking, walking their kids (and) pets, and begging for supplies.”
“Cars are stuck, trees are down, there are miles of parked cars scattered unevenly around the massive ice heaps to avoid getting stuck-stuck, making it impossible for any real emergency effort to reach us,” he said in Twitter messages as his sibling and her partner slept.
Another motorist, Anne Gould, described a chaotic scene.
“There’s cars and trucks as far as I can see behind me, and in front of me, and it’s looked like this for 12 hours,” she told NBC Washington early Tuesday morning.
Gould was on her annual trek to Florida when traffic stopped Monday afternoon. She told the news station that she had only moved a few car lengths by Tuesday about 6:20 a.m.
While some motorists abandoned their vehicles, others faced a dire situation as they ran out of gas and had no access to food or water.
Some also warned that they had kids and pets in their vehicles, as they struggled to make it through the storm, NBC Washington reported.
The chaos unfolded when all southbound lanes of I-95 were shut down at mile marker 136 near Centreport Parkway after a crash involving several vehicles around noon on Monday.
No one was hurt in the incident, but the collision sparked delays, with the Virginia Department of Transportation later warning that heavy snow continued to back up traffic.
In a statement published on Twitter at around 8:40 p.m., the agency described the situation as “frustrating & scary.”
“We wish we had a timetable, ETA or an educated guess on when travel will resume on I-95,” the department said. “It’s at a standstill in our area with multiple incidents. Its frustrating & scary.”
“Please know our crews don’t stop,” it said, adding: “Crews will work 24/7 until ALL state-maintained roads are safe for travel.”
By early Tuesday morning, the department said crews were “mobilizing now to start taking people stopped on interstate off nearby interchanges to bring them to alternate routes.”
It also said that snowplows and tow trucks were on the scene, adding that motorists should plan to avoid travel on the interstate “until lanes reopen and significant congestion clears the area.”
NBC News correspondent Josh Lederman was also caught up in the chaos, with his pet dog in the backseat.
“I try not to tweet about daily inconveniences, but this experience has been insane,” he said in a tweet.
“For the last 7+ hours, I’ve been stuck in my car, not moving, in a total shutdown of I-95 northbound about 30 miles south of DC,” Lederman said.
“The interstate is absolutely littered with disabled vehicles. Not just cars. Semis, everything. Nobody can move. People are running out of gas or abandoning vehicles,” he said in a separate tweet.
Later, he told NBC’s “TODAY” show that he had made it back home safely after what he described as a “crazy night.”
“We were lucky. We had enough gas to make it through without losing power to the car. We were OK without having water and food, but this was a scary situation,” Lederman said.
“I think people expect, given the weather that we were having here, that you might face some delays on the road,” he said. “People were not anticipating, at least I certainly was not, that they would have to be spending the entire night waiting to see if anybody was going to come and clear the road so that people would be able to get out.”
“You don’t expect to be making calculations about, all right, do I have enough water to get me through before I get into a kind of trouble situation,” he said. “Do I have enough gas in my car that’s sitting idle on this highway? (Can it) stay running overnight and keep me warm?”
‘I’m afraid to sleep’
Lancaster said he tried calling the Virginia Department of Transportation himself, but said he was left “on hold” for two hours.
Before that, he said he kept trying to reassure his sister and her partner that “help will be here soon.”
“And it was like 4 a.m. when I suddenly realized help wasn’t coming,” he said.
“I’m afraid to sleep, and afraid to stay up and see what happens,” Lancaster added.
When traffic does start moving, he said he is also nervous about the prospect of having to drive on icy roads.
“With the traffic jam starting during the snowstorm, the road below us was never (and has yet to be) salted,” Lancaster said. “I’m from Florida, and have never driven on ice before … so really anxious about what’s next.”
“(I) am genuinely terrified,” he added.
The National Weather Service warned that icy patches could be “especially problematic” on untreated roadways from Tennessee into Maryland following heavy and wet snowfall.
As drivers found themselves trapped on the interstate, residents also faced sweeping outages that saw more than 400,000 customers from Georgia to Maryland without power by Tuesday morning, according to PowerOutage.US.
Nearly 300,000 of those outages were reported in Virginia alone.