Emergency crews on Tuesday afternoon freed the last of hundreds of drivers stranded by a snowstorm on Interstate 95 in Virginia, after more than 24 shivering hours of watching gas gauges drop, rationing food and water and holding out for any kind of help.
A 40-mile stretch of the highway — one of the busiest travel corridors in the United States — came to a standstill overnight after a fast-falling snowstorm led to jackknifed tractor-trailers and hundreds of other accidents. Some people abandoned their cars. Many, including a U.S. senator, spent the night on the snowy highway.
As people spent a sleepless night in driver’s seats and truck cabs, state troopers slowly trudged from person to person, helping when they could with supplies. Tow trucks dragged car after disabled car out of the ice.
“It’s been so horrible,” Arlin Tellez, 22, said in an interview on Tuesday morning from her car on the highway in Caroline County, Va., about 80 miles south of Washington. She had been trapped there since 5 p.m. Monday without any food or water, and was layering on clothes she had in the car.
“There’s just no way for us to know what’s actually happening,” she said. “When we tried to call the police, because at this point that was our only resource, they literally just told us to hang on tight.”
At a news conference on Tuesday afternoon, Virginia state officials said that they had been working to clear several hundred vehicles off I-95. Fewer than 20 vehicles remained on the interstate by 5 p.m. All vehicles had been checked and those still on roadways had been abandoned.
“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,” Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia said.
The Virginia State Police said they had not received any reports of injuries or deaths related to the storm, but the authorities around the Mid-Atlantic said it had caused at least five deaths.
Officials said the storm began on Monday with rain, which would have washed away road salts, and quickly overwhelmed efforts to keep the highway clear. Rain turned to sleet and then snow, which fell at a rate of two inches an hour for four to five hours, according to Marcie Parker, a Virginia Department of Transportation engineer.
“That was entirely too much for us to keep up with,” she told reporters on Tuesday.
Cars and trucks slowed, and then stopped, on their way up and down hills. At least one tractor-trailer slid sideways across the highway. In some places, Ms. Parker said, four inches of ice froze underneath vehicles.
Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, said the authorities had responded to more than 1,000 traffic crashes and more than 1,000 disabled or stuck vehicles statewide. “We don’t believe that accounts for the vehicles on the 95 stretch,” she said.
The snowstorm trapped truckers, students, families and every stripe of commuter, including Tim Kaine, the junior U.S. senator from Virginia and a former Democratic nominee for vice president. His ordeal began at about 1 p.m. on Monday, as his normal two-hour commute to the Capitol was disrupted by the gathering accidents and snow.
“I’m extremely tired,” Mr. Kaine said in a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon as he arrived in Washington, having spent more than 20 hours stuck in his vehicle. “I had to sleep in my car last night on an ice-packed interstate with a ton of other cars.”
He said he left his car on for 30 minutes at a time to charge his phone, make calls and warm up, then turned it off to save gas and to sleep for 20 minutes or so, only to be wakened by the cold. When he wasn’t napping, Mr. Kaine said, he passed the time by sipping Dr Pepper, listening to SiriusXM radio and eating small wedges of an orange that another stranded driver had given him.
He said he regretted his habit of skipping breakfast.
“I’m going to walk into the office right now, and I’m going to drink some water,” he said. “And I’m going to eat some potato chips or something salty, and I’m going to use a restroom.”
Meera Rao and her husband, Raghavendra Rao, said they received notice about traffic conditions only after 15 hours in Caroline County.
“I never thought I would be on a road near Washington, D.C., and not be able to move my vehicle an inch or two,” Mr. Rao said.
Around 9 a.m. on Tuesday, someone cleared an exit near their car and they were able to move.
“We saw so many accidents ourselves, I was just praying for all of them,” Ms. Rao said.
Jen Travis, a marketing agency owner from Sterling, Va., said she, her husband and their 12-year-old daughter got stuck near Fredericksburg, Va., around 2:30 a.m., as they were returning from a vacation at Universal Orlando Resort. Their road trip began after two canceled airline flights in Florida.
Ms. Travis, 42, said the family had no food since they stopped for dinner around 7 p.m. on Monday, and that she had not gone to the bathroom since then, either. “I’m telling you, my bladder is about ready to burst,” she said.
“Then we’re in the middle of Covid,” she added. “How do you walk up to a random house and say, ‘Can we use your bathroom? By the way, can you take a PCR test?’”
Filling stations and convenience stores did steady business, at least once drivers were able to get to them. An employee who answered the phone at a Sheetz gas station in Woodford, Va., on Tuesday afternoon said customers had been streaming in — many on foot, having walked about a quarter-mile from the highway.
“We don’t have much of anything left,” said the employee, who gave only his first name, Jason. Asked whether the station was out of fuel, he said, “We’re about to be.”
The bad weather also disrupted rail traffic in Virginia. An Amtrak train that was on its way to New York from New Orleans returned to the station in Lynchburg, Va., after coming to a stop north of there on Monday, according to passengers who said they had been told that downed trees were blocking the tracks.
Malcolm Kenton, who was on his way to Washington from Greensboro, N.C., said Amtrak gave passengers the choice of leaving when the train returned to Lynchburg. Mr. Kenton disembarked and spent the night at a hotel.
“The train ran out of food at 6 p.m.,” he said. “It wasn’t officially announced, but we started hearing discussion that some of the toilets weren’t working. We just weren’t willing to risk having to spend the night on a train with no food and no working toilets.”
The storm caused problems around the region, burying parts of Virginia in more than 15 inches of snow, and knocking out power for hundreds of thousands of customers in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and Tennessee.
Monday’s storm led to the deaths of at least five people. In Maryland, two women and a man died after their vehicle collided with a snow plow, according to the Montgomery County Police Department. Local news outlets in Tennessee and Georgia reported that a child in each state had died after trees fell onto their homes.
As agencies worked to clear the roadways, drivers finally started to move.
Marvin Romero, 34, an audio-video field engineer from Brooklyn, N.Y., said on Tuesday that he was driving with his two daughters, 10 and 8, back from a family vacation in Florida when they hit traffic around 3 p.m. on Monday in Virginia.
From about 10 p.m. until Tuesday morning, his Hyundai Tucson compact S.U.V. did not move. At one point, Mr. Romero gave his daughters sparklers to pass the time. At another, he wrapped them in blankets while they slept.
“I knew I couldn’t leave my car on all night,” Mr. Romero said. “I was worried about food, gas, my daughters. How are they going to sleep? The closest hotel to us walking was an hour away.”
Tried keeping my kids busy to keep their mind occupied. We’ve been stuck here since 3pm. We’ve all gotten frustrated sitting in the car which is why I decided we step outside for a little. I really can’t believe this is happening. @Vdot were you prepared for anything ??? pic.twitter.com/BJ0PS7Pi2F
— Marvin Romero (@MarvRome87) January 4, 2022
As of 1:45 p.m. on Tuesday, Mr. Romero said that he was moving again. He still had a long drive ahead of him, according to his GPS.
“It’s telling me 1 o’clock in the morning right now,” he said.
Eduardo Medina, Jesus Jiménez and Vimal Patel contributed reporting.