Drivers fret about food and fuel while stranded on highway

Drivers wait for the traffic to be cleared as cars and trucks are stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, in Carmel Church, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

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Drivers wait for the traffic to be cleared as cars and trucks are stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, in Carmel Church, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

Credit: Steve Helber

The waiting is over for the last of the drivers who got stranded overnight on an interstate highway in Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — There was no food, water or sleep for Susan Phalen as she spent a frigid night inside her car stopped on Interstate 95 in Virginia. Meera Rao and her husband were only 100 feet past an exit but were unable to move for 16 hours.

Sen. Tim Kaine was on his way to Washington when a seemingly simple commute stretched into a 21-hour ordeal that became “a kind of survival project.”

They were among hundreds of people who got stranded on the East Coast's main north-south highway in freezing temperatures after a winter storm snarled traffic and left some drivers stuck in place for as much as a full day.

The problems began Monday morning when a truck jackknifed on I-95, triggering a chain reaction as other vehicles lost control, state police said. Eventually lanes in both directions became blocked across a 40-mile stretch of the highway between Richmond and the nation's capital at a time when snow was falling around 2 inches an hour.

Hundreds of motorists spent the night in their vehicles, worrying about a lack of food, fuel and water as temperatures fell into the teens. One family reported that they went more than 18 hours without eating.

There were no reports of serious injuries or deaths, but there was plenty of anger among drivers.

“No one came. It was just shocking,” said Rao, who was traveling home to Burtonsville, Maryland, after visiting her daughter in North Carolina when she got stuck Monday evening. “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?”

It took until Tuesday evening around 8:30 p.m. for the Virginia Department of Transportation to reopen the interstate. Authorities had announced earlier in the evening that all stranded motorists had made it off the highway. Transportation officials then oversaw the removal of remaining abandoned vehicles and making sure the entire stretch was plowed.

As stranded motorists waited in their cars, many posted desperate messages on social media. Between midnight and 3 a.m. Tuesday, traffic came to a complete standstill, state officials said.

Gov. Ralph Northam said his team responded through the night by sending emergency messages to connect drivers with help and working with local officials to set up warming shelters as needed. Officials told reporters crews were helping distribute food, water and fuel.

Rao said they 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.

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

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

People who were stranded and their families lashed out at Northam on Twitter, asking why the Virginia National Guard was not deployed.

Northam said in an interview that he opted not to request National Guard help because the issue facing state crews was not a lack of manpower but the difficulty of getting workers and equipment through the snow and ice to where they needed to be. He said that effort was complicated by the disabled vehicles, freezing temperatures and ice.

The affected section of the interstate was not pretreated because heavy rain preceded the snow, which fell at times as fast as 2 inches an hour, said Marcie Parker, a state Department of Transportation engineer.

“That was entirely too much for us to keep up with,” she said.

The storm also left passengers on an Amtrak train stranded in Virginia. Amtrak's Crescent left New Orleans on Sunday on its way to New York and got stuck near Lynchburg on Monday morning, when downed trees blocked the tracks.

Passenger Sean Thornton told AP that Amtrak provided food, but toilets were overflowing and passengers were furious. Amtrak planned for the train to complete its trip once the tracks are clear.

Up to 11 inches of snow fell in the area during Monday's blizzard, according to the National Weather Service, and state police had warned people to avoid driving unless absolutely necessary, especially as colder nighttime temperatures set in.

Compounding the challenges, traffic cameras went offline as much of central Virginia lost power in the storm, the transportation department said.

Kaine left his home in Richmond for his usual two-hour commute to the U.S. Capitol after Monday's snowstorm, expecting to preside over the Senate on Tuesday morning. Instead, he spent the night alone in his car on I-95.

The Democrat told Washington radio station WTOP that he worried about all the families with children or elderly passengers who were running out of fuel and food. But Kaine also described a camaraderie as strangers connected along the highway, including a Connecticut family who walked up and down lines of stopped cars, sharing a bag of oranges they had planned to bring home from a Florida vacation.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Kaine said. “I will never forget this.”

Phelan’s planned one-hour drive from her parents’ house turned into a 16-hour nightmare. She said at some point during the gridlock, she thought she might have to start knocking on windows asking other drivers for water. But she, too, witnessed acts of kindness among the stranded drivers, saying “everybody was helping everybody.”

Kelly Hannon, a spokeswoman for the transportation department, apologized to motorists and said the department would take an “exhaustive look” at the incident.

___

Kunzelman reported from College Park, Maryland. Associated Press writers Denise Lavoie in Richmond, Matthew Barakat in Falls Church, Virginia; Bryan Gallion in Roseland, New Jersey; and Julie Walker in New York also contributed to this report.

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Kiara Davis (left) and Aja Brown walk up the southbound I95 on ramp toward Route 234 in Dumfries, Va. on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. The two brought a cooler with beverages and snacks for anyone they may have found stranded on the highway. Hundreds of motorists waited desperately for help Tuesday after a winter storm snarled traffic in Virginia and left some drivers stranded for nearly 24 hours in freezing temperatures along an impassable stretch of interstate south of the nation's capital. (Peter Cihelka/The Free Lance-Star via AP)

Credit: Peter Cihelka

Kiara Davis (left) and Aja Brown walk up the southbound I95 on ramp toward Route 234 in Dumfries, Va. on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. The two brought a cooler with beverages and snacks for anyone they may have found stranded on the highway. Hundreds of motorists waited desperately for help Tuesday after a winter storm snarled traffic in Virginia and left some drivers stranded for nearly 24 hours in freezing temperatures along an impassable stretch of interstate south of the nation's capital. (Peter Cihelka/The Free Lance-Star via AP)

Credit: Peter Cihelka

caption arrowCaption
Kiara Davis (left) and Aja Brown walk up the southbound I95 on ramp toward Route 234 in Dumfries, Va. on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. The two brought a cooler with beverages and snacks for anyone they may have found stranded on the highway. Hundreds of motorists waited desperately for help Tuesday after a winter storm snarled traffic in Virginia and left some drivers stranded for nearly 24 hours in freezing temperatures along an impassable stretch of interstate south of the nation's capital. (Peter Cihelka/The Free Lance-Star via AP)

Credit: Peter Cihelka

Credit: Peter Cihelka

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Snow plows pushes snow to the side of northbound Interstate 95 in Spotsylvania County, Va., on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. Hundreds of motorists were stranded on Monday, after a winter storm snarled traffic in Virginia and left some drivers stuck in place for nearly 24 hours in freezing temperatures along an impassable stretch of Interstate 80 south of the nation's capital. (Tristan Lorei

Credit: TRISTAN LOREI

Snow plows pushes snow to the side of northbound Interstate 95 in Spotsylvania County, Va., on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. Hundreds of motorists were stranded on Monday, after a winter storm snarled traffic in Virginia and left some drivers stuck in place for nearly 24 hours in freezing temperatures along an impassable stretch of Interstate 80 south of the nation's capital. (Tristan Lorei

Credit: TRISTAN LOREI

caption arrowCaption
Snow plows pushes snow to the side of northbound Interstate 95 in Spotsylvania County, Va., on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. Hundreds of motorists were stranded on Monday, after a winter storm snarled traffic in Virginia and left some drivers stuck in place for nearly 24 hours in freezing temperatures along an impassable stretch of Interstate 80 south of the nation's capital. (Tristan Lorei

Credit: TRISTAN LOREI

Credit: TRISTAN LOREI

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Cars and trucks are stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, in Carmel Church, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

Cars and trucks are stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, in Carmel Church, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

caption arrowCaption
Cars and trucks are stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, in Carmel Church, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

Credit: Steve Helber

caption arrowCaption
Drivers look down the roadway as cars and trucks are stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, in Carmel Church, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

Drivers look down the roadway as cars and trucks are stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, in Carmel Church, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

caption arrowCaption
Drivers look down the roadway as cars and trucks are stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, in Carmel Church, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

Credit: Steve Helber

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This image from the Twitter account of U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., shows the view from his car along Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg, Va. Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022. Kaine tweeted that he has been stuck in traffic on the highway for 19 hours. (Office of Sen. Tim Kaine via AP)

Credit: Tim Kaine

This image from the Twitter account of U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., shows the view from his car along Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg, Va. Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022. Kaine tweeted that he has been stuck in traffic on the highway for 19 hours. (Office of Sen. Tim Kaine via AP)

Credit: Tim Kaine

caption arrowCaption
This image from the Twitter account of U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., shows the view from his car along Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg, Va. Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022. Kaine tweeted that he has been stuck in traffic on the highway for 19 hours. (Office of Sen. Tim Kaine via AP)

Credit: Tim Kaine

Credit: Tim Kaine

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Workers remove cars and trucks stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, in Carmel Church, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

Workers remove cars and trucks stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, in Carmel Church, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

caption arrowCaption
Workers remove cars and trucks stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, in Carmel Church, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

Credit: Steve Helber

caption arrowCaption
Cars and trucks are stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, near Quantico, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

Cars and trucks are stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, near Quantico, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

caption arrowCaption
Cars and trucks are stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, near Quantico, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

Credit: Steve Helber

caption arrowCaption
Drivers look down the roadway as cars and trucks are stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, in Carmel Church, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

Drivers look down the roadway as cars and trucks are stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, in Carmel Church, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

caption arrowCaption
Drivers look down the roadway as cars and trucks are stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, in Carmel Church, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

Credit: Steve Helber

caption arrowCaption
Cars and trucks are stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, near Quantico, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

Cars and trucks are stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, near Quantico, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

caption arrowCaption
Cars and trucks are stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, near Quantico, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

Credit: Steve Helber

caption arrowCaption
Cars and trucks wait for traffic to clear after being stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, in Stafford, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

Cars and trucks wait for traffic to clear after being stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, in Stafford, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

caption arrowCaption
Cars and trucks wait for traffic to clear after being stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, in Stafford, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

Credit: Steve Helber

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A tow truck pulls a semi-tractor off of southbound I-95 and onto Route 234 in Dumfries, Va. on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. Hundreds of motorists waited desperately for help Tuesday after a winter storm snarled traffic in Virginia and left some drivers stranded for nearly 24 hours in freezing temperatures along an impassable stretch of interstate south of the nation's capital. (Peter Cihelka/The Free Lance-Star via AP)

Credit: Peter Cihelka

A tow truck pulls a semi-tractor off of southbound I-95 and onto Route 234 in Dumfries, Va. on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. Hundreds of motorists waited desperately for help Tuesday after a winter storm snarled traffic in Virginia and left some drivers stranded for nearly 24 hours in freezing temperatures along an impassable stretch of interstate south of the nation's capital. (Peter Cihelka/The Free Lance-Star via AP)

Credit: Peter Cihelka

caption arrowCaption
A tow truck pulls a semi-tractor off of southbound I-95 and onto Route 234 in Dumfries, Va. on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. Hundreds of motorists waited desperately for help Tuesday after a winter storm snarled traffic in Virginia and left some drivers stranded for nearly 24 hours in freezing temperatures along an impassable stretch of interstate south of the nation's capital. (Peter Cihelka/The Free Lance-Star via AP)

Credit: Peter Cihelka

Credit: Peter Cihelka

caption arrowCaption
Workers remove cars and trucks stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, in Carmel Church, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

Workers remove cars and trucks stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, in Carmel Church, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

caption arrowCaption
Workers remove cars and trucks stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, in Carmel Church, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Credit: Steve Helber

Credit: Steve Helber

caption arrowCaption
Motorists sit stranded on Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg, Va, on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. 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. (WJLA via AP)

Credit: Uncredited

Motorists sit stranded on Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg, Va, on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. 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.  (WJLA via AP)

Credit: Uncredited

caption arrowCaption
Motorists sit stranded on Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg, Va, on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. 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. (WJLA via AP)

Credit: Uncredited

Credit: Uncredited

caption arrowCaption
This image provided by the Virginia department of Transportation shows a closed section of Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg, Va. Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022. Both northbound and southbound sections of the highway were closed due to snow and ice. (Virginia Department of Transportation via AP)

Credit: Uncredited

This image provided by the Virginia department of Transportation shows a closed section of Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg, Va. Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022. Both northbound and southbound sections of the highway were closed due to snow and ice. (Virginia Department of Transportation via AP)

Credit: Uncredited

caption arrowCaption
This image provided by the Virginia department of Transportation shows a closed section of Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg, Va. Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022. Both northbound and southbound sections of the highway were closed due to snow and ice. (Virginia Department of Transportation via AP)

Credit: Uncredited

Credit: Uncredited