Motorists Stuck for 16 Hours on Virginia Interstate, Despite Being 100 Feet From Exit

Hundreds of drivers in Virginia found themselves stuck in freezing temperatures on a 50-mile section of Interstate 95 Tuesday after icy roads caused truck crashes that started a domino effect on other cars.

Drivers Meera and Raghavendra Rao reported being stuck on the interstate for 16 hours though they were only about 100 feet past an exit.

The National Weather Service reported that Monday's blizzard caused up to 11 inches of snowfall. So far, no serious injuries have been reported.

Due to how tightly packed the traffic was, road crews had a difficult time reaching the accident sites to tow the jackknifed trucks, Senator Tim Kaine told WTOP.

In addition, the Virginia Department of Transportation reported that traffic cameras went offline during a power outage caused by the storm.

Many people who were stuck in their cars for hours took to social media to criticize Governor Ralph Northam's decision not to deploy the National Guard. Northam responded by saying the issue was not a lack of personnel, but a struggle to get through the snow and ice to reach impacted vehicles.

Northam said he could not estimate when I-95 would return to regular functioning, but Transportation Department engineer Marcie Parker said the department aims to have it open again by Wednesday morning.

I-95, snow, motorists
Hundreds of motorists were stranded all night in snow and freezing temperatures along a 50-mile stretch of Interstate 95 after a crash involving six tractor-trailers in Virginia, where authorities were struggling Tuesday to reach them. Above, motorists sit stranded on I-95 near Fredericksburg, Virginia, on Tuesday, January 4. WJLA via AP

Around daybreak, road crews began helping drivers get off "at any available interchange," the Virginia Department of Transportation tweeted.

By 9 a.m., a single lane of traffic was creeping forward between many stalled trucks and cars in one direction. People could be seen walking down traffic lanes still covered with ice and snow.

Crews were working to tow the stopped trucks and to remove snow and ice while guiding stranded motorists to the nearest exits, transportation officials said.

Northam said his team responded through the night, sending out emergency messages to connect drivers with help and working with local officials to set up warming shelters as needed.

Heavy rain that preceded the storm made it difficult to pretreat roads, and conditions began to deteriorate around midnight, he added.

Meera Rao said she and her husband stopped their car engine at least 30 times to conserve gas and ran the heat just enough to get warm. They had some potato chips, nuts and apples to eat, but Rao did not want to drink any bottled water because she had a sprained ankle and did not think she could reach a makeshift restroom.

"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?"

Finally, around midmorning on Tuesday, a tow truck driver appeared and cleared away snow, allowing the Raos and other cars to back up and take the exit.

"He was a messenger from God," Rao said. "I literally was in tears."

Kaine, who lives in Richmond, said he was stuck in his car 21 hours after starting his two-hour commute to the Capitol at 1 p.m. Monday.

"This has been a miserable experience," Kaine told WTOP.

He described camaraderie among those who were stranded, including a Connecticut family returning from a Florida vacation who walked up and down lines of parked cars sharing a bag of oranges.

Darryl Walter, of Bethesda, Maryland, was stuck for 10 hours as he drove home from a Florida beach vacation with his wife, son and dog Brisket.

They had a few bottles of water, some bags of chips, a blanket for warmth and Trivial Pursuit to pass the time. Walter said the worst part of the ordeal was not knowing how long it would last.

Walter felt fortunate that they were able to make it home as soon as they did knowing that many others remained stranded for much longer. They passed a long line of southbound cars that were unable to get past the jackknifed trucks.

"It had to be 15 miles of backup," he said.

A planned one-hour drive home from her parents' house turned into a 16-hour nightmare for Susan Phelan when she got stuck in the northbound lanes of I-95 and did not move for roughly 10 hours.

After a frigid night without sleep, food or water, she pulled into the driveway at her Alexandria, Virginia, home just before noon Tuesday.

"Mom was right: Always pack a Snickers bar," said Phelan, a former federal communications officer. "At some point in the gridlock, I was going to have to start knocking on windows asking for water. At that point, everybody was helping everybody. If you needed something, it was not a problem."

In the state's Prince William County, emergency crews responded Tuesday to 10 calls from motorists, including complaints about hypothermia and diabetics concerned about a prolonged lack of food, said Matt Smolsky, assistant fire chief. None of the calls were life-threatening, but four patients were transported.

Crews used the express lanes that separate the northbound and southbound lanes to reach patients, he said.

Also stranded was NBC News correspondent Josh Lederman, who spoke on NBC's Today show on Tuesday via video feed from his car. He said he had been stuck about 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of Washington, D.C., since 8 p.m. Monday.

There were no signs of any emergency vehicles, said Lederman, a former White House reporter for the Associated Press.

"You really start to think if there was a medical emergency, someone that was out of gas and out of heat—you know it's 26 degrees, and there's no way that anybody can get to you in this situation."

The Associated Press contributed to this report