More than 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 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.”
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.
Ms. Parker said a “significant” number of vehicles remained trapped on the highway. Local news accounts and witnesses put the figure in the hundreds.
Winter Storms in the United States
From the East Coast to the Western U.S., a barrage of winter storms has wreaked havoc across the country.
Ms. Parker said that crews and tow trucks may finish clearing the interstate of ice and vehicles by Tuesday night.
The snowstorm trapped truckers, students, families and every stripe of commuter, including Tim Kaine, the junior U.S. senator for 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, according to a spokeswoman, Ilse Zuniga.
Nineteen hours after he had set out for Washington, Mr. Kaine said on Twitter that he was still on the interstate.
By about 1 p.m., his spokeswoman said, Mr. Kaine was again on his way, after a pit stop to fill up on gas and buy food.
“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 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 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 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.
Todd Gilbert, the speaker-designee of the Virginia House of Delegates, called on the National Guard to respond to the storm, echoing the concerns of some of those who were stranded.
“The best time to do this was last night,” Mr. Gilbert, a Republican, said in a statement. “The second best time is now.”
Cotton Puryear, a public affairs officer for the Virginia National Guard, said on Tuesday that the Guard had not received any requests to respond, though it was coordinating with the state’s emergency response team.
As agencies worked to clear the roadways, drivers finally started to move.
Marvin Romero, 34, an audio-video field engineer from Brooklyn, N.Y., saidon 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.”
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 contributed reporting.
Amanda Holpuch, Derrick Bryson Taylor and Neil Vigdor