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Drivers Stranded Overnight as Snowstorm Shuts Part of I-95 in Virginia


Nearly a full day after a snowstorm slammed into Virginia, stranding hundreds of drivers on a stretch of Interstate 95 south of Washington, many remained stuck in their cars on Tuesday afternoon without food or water as rescuers worked to free them.

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 a jackknifed tractor-trailer and hundreds of other accidents. Some people abandoned their cars. Many, including a U.S. senator, spent the night on the snowy highway.

People were shivering for 20 hours or more in driver’s seats and truck cabs, watching fuel gauges sink over the sleepless night. State troopers slowly trudged from person to person, helping when they could with supplies. Tow trucks dragged car after disabled car out of the snow and 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, 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 packed 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.”

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.

Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia said the state was sending an emergency message to stranded drivers and trying to reroute them.

On Tuesday, Virginia officials said the storm quickly overwhelmed their efforts to keep the highway clear. Rain turned to sleet that turned to 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, creating an impassable surface or locking them into place.

Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, said that 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.

Ms. Parker said a “significant” number of vehicles remained trapped on the highway. “I couldn’t even venture to guess.” Local news accounts and witnesses put the figure in the hundreds.

Ms. Parker said that crews and tow trucks may finish clearing the interstate of ice and vehicles by Tuesday night.

On social media, drivers reported being stranded for 12 hours or more. Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, was among them, saying on Twitter on Tuesday that his normal two-hour commute to Washington had been disrupted by the standstill and ice on the interstate.

Ilse Zuniga, a spokeswoman for Mr. Kaine, said the senator had left for the Capitol at 1 p.m. on Monday and was still stuck on the interstate alone in his vehicle at 10 a.m.

“This has been a miserable experience,” Mr. Kaine told WTOP, a Washington-area radio station. “But at some point, I kind of made the switch from a miserable travel experience into kind of a survival project.”

Meera Rao and her husband, Raghavendra Rao, said they received information about traffic conditions only after being stuck for a “miserable” 15 hours in Caroline County. The couple were on their way home to Burtonsville, Md., after visiting their daughter in North Carolina when their car came to a halt.

Before leaving, they had checked the travel conditions and had seen no warnings, they said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “I’ve driven in Alaska and Hawaii and all the places,” Mr. Rao said, “but 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.”

Around 9 a.m. on Tuesday, someone cleared an exit near their car and they were able to move. After their sleepless night, the couple first stopped at a gas station for coffee before resuming their journey home.

“Even though we were stuck there for almost 15 hours, we are safe,” Ms. Rao said. “We saw so many accidents ourselves, I was just praying for all of them.”

Parts of Virginia received more than 15 inches of snow, and by early Tuesday, more than 260,000 customers in the state were still without power, according to PowerOutage.us, which aggregates data from utilities across the United States. Tens of thousands of customers were also without power in 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. Another man who was in the vehicle was hospitalized in critical condition after the crash, the police said.

The storm also weighed down power lines and caused tree limbs to break. In eastern Tennessee, a 7-year-old girl died after a tree fell on a home, according to ABC 9, a local television station in Chattanooga. And a 5-year-old boy was killed in Georgia after a tree fell onto his home, reported CBS 46, a television station in the Atlanta area.

Federal government offices in Washington were set to open under a three-hour delay on Tuesday. Several school districts across Northern Virginia and parts farther south, including the Richmond area, announced closures. Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland said it would open two hours late, while several districts in New Jersey announced similar plans.

By Monday night, snow totals in certain areas had exceeded predictions set by meteorologists. In Huntingtown, Md., 15.5 inches of snow was reported, according to the Weather Service. Glendie, Va., received 14.6 inches, and Ellendale, Del., recorded 14.5 inches. More than eight inches fell in Washington.

The forecast for Tuesday across the Washington region looked favorable, although the combination of clear skies and snow-covered ground was expected to cause “bitterly cold” temperatures in the teens and low 20s, the Weather Service said. Temperatures will climb into the mid- to upper 30s before dropping again overnight.

Eduardo Medina contributed reporting.




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