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I-95 closure in Virginia ends after nearly 30 hours of driver despair

“After 27 hours on the road from Richmond to DC, very happy to be back in the Capitol,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., tweeted Tuesday.
/ Source: NBC News

The Interstate 95 closure has come to an end, nearly 30 hours after a crash brought the East Coast’s main north-south road to a halt and stranded drivers.

The Virginia Department of Transportation announced the end of the 50-mile closure in the Fredericksburg area, first triggered Monday morning by a big-rig accident and vehicles stalling in the freezing temperatures, at 5:15 p.m. Tuesday.

“There are no people stranded still on I-95,” the department tweeted. “Less than 20 vehicles left to be removed from the interstate before plow trains will come through to remove snow and ice from the travel lanes.”

The closure, amid the first mid-Atlantic snowstorm of the year, left some motorists stuck without supplies or access to fuel.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., is among those who were caught in the chaos. Kaine tweeted Tuesday afternoon that he had been stuck in traffic for 27 hours before making it to his office.

“Ok after 27 hours on the road from Richmond to DC, very happy to be back in the Capitol and working on voting rights legislation this afternoon,” he wrote.

Kaine said his office was in touch with the Virginia Department of Transportation “to see how we can help other Virginians in this situation.”

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said his office responded to the closure of one of the nation’s most vital roadways, which runs from Maine to Miami.

“State and local emergency personnel are continuing to clear downed trees, assist disabled vehicles, and re-route drivers,” he tweeted.

The Virginia transportation department said Tuesday it had made headway in removing the disabled vehicles and big-rigs that had clogged the northbound and southbound roadways from Exit 104 to Exit 152.

State transportation officials have not responded to multiple requests for comment from NBC News on Tuesday.

Cars and trucks sit completely stopped on a highway in a snowy forest. One truck appears to be stuck slightly off the road.
Drivers wait for the traffic to be cleared as cars and trucks are stranded Tuesday on sections of Interstate 95 in Carmel Church, Va. Close to 48 miles of the interstate were closed because of ice and snow.Steve Helber / AP

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-19 variant.

He was frustrated with what he described as the lack of communication and vague statements coming from transportation officials.

“I’m 2 and a half hours ‘on hold’ to speak to a representative for any information,” Lancaster said. “I’ve seen one emergency worker ... who when asked for information said, ‘Does it look like I know?’”

“Well, I’d hope you’d know, officer,” Lancaster said.

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, 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 flash mob 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, told NBC Washington early Tuesday morning, “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.”

Gould was on her annual trek to Florida when traffic stopped Monday afternoon. She told the news station she had only moved a few car lengths by Tuesday at about 6:20 a.m.

A snowy tree lies across a snow-covered street with an American flag in the background.
A tree lies across Scotchtown Road in Hanover County, Va., during a snowstorm Monday.Alexa Welch Edlund / Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP

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 disruption unfolded when all southbound lanes of I-95 were shut down at mile marker 136 near Centreport Parkway after at least six big-rigs were involved in a crash before noon Monday, the transportation department said.

At about the same time “multiple disabled tractor trailers” shut down all but one northbound lane, it tweeted.

No one was hurt in the incidents, but the collision sparked delays, with transportation officials later warning that heavy snow continued to back up traffic.

In a statement published on Twitter around 8:40 p.m., the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Fredericksburg arm 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,” it said. “It’s at a standstill in our area with multiple incidents. Its frustrating & scary.”

“Please know our crews don’t stop. Crews will work 24/7 until ALL state-maintained roads are safe for travel,” it added.

By early Tuesday morning, VDOT Fredericksburg said crews were “mobilizing now to start taking people stopped on interstate off nearby interchanges to bring them to alternate routes.”

VDOT said 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.”

Liz Blasso, who estimated that she got stuck at 6:30 p.m. while traveling from Pennsylvania to North Carolina on Monday, expressed in her Instagram stories that she was frustrated with VDOT’s slow updates.

She said late Tuesday morning that she had moved about 8 miles since the night before.

“I had to use a cup to go to the bathroom in my car. I haven’t had any water or caffeine and I’ve been awake for 36 hours or so,” Blasso said. She wasn’t able to take medications she’s supposed to take at night because they make her drowsy.

“I’m not with anybody so I couldn’t really fall asleep,” she said.

Blasso eventually made it to an exit where she pulled off and took refuge in an empty motel parking lot.

NBC News correspondent Josh Lederman also got stuck on I-95, with his pet dog in the back seat.

“I try not to tweet about daily inconveniences, but this experience has been insane,” he tweeted.

Northern Virginia Hit With Major Winter Storm
A major winter storm cripples traffic at the start of the workweek Monday in Alexandria, Va.mpi34 / mpi34/MediaPunch/IPx/AP

“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 TODAY 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 VDOT himself, but he 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.

Drivers were stranded for hours on I-95 in Virginia after a winter storm brought travel chaos and power outages.
Drivers were stranded for hours on I-95 in Virginia after a winter storm brought travel chaos and power outages. Seb Lancaster

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.

Federal forecasters warned that Wednesday would be another perilous day for motorists, with freezing rain and ice accumulation possible, and “significant travel disruptions” could be expected.

The National Weather Service said 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 power 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.

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