‘Starving, freezing’: Hundreds of travelers left stranded on I-95 in Virginia; while road was closed

Traffic

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Hundreds of cars remain stranded on Interstate 95 near Stafford County while work crews continue cleaning up from Monday’s winter storm. The interstate was closed around 5:45 a.m. Tuesday and remains shut down to northbound and southbound traffic. Vehicles are being turned around or redirected onto Route 1. The 40-mile backup spans from the Fredericksburg area to Ruther Glen.

Some travelers have been stuck in their vehicles since 3 p.m. Monday.

During an 11:30 a.m. media briefing on Tuesday, Marci Parker, district engineer for the Virginia Department Of Transportation in Fredericksburg, said that most people stuck in the standstill are still with their vehicles.

VDOT said it anticipates reopening the interstate by Wednesday at the latest after tow trucks have removed disabled vehicles that are blocking the roadway. After the vehicles are removed they will be able to clear the roads.

“None of the portion was pretreated because it started as rain, and if they pretreated it would have just washed away and wasted product and blocked traffic,” explained Parker.

Parker said that heavy snowfall rates on Monday resulted in more snow than VDOT had anticipated, and it fell at a faster rate. She remarked that the agency could not keep up with the snowfall saying, “We cannot handle that.”

According to 8News Senior Meteorologist John Bernier, Monday’s storm was responsible for a couple of factors that could have affected how crews responded to the traffic backup on I-95.

Heavy bands of snow stretched across Virginia from northeast of Charlottesville into Maryland. Those bands brought persistent heavy snowfall rates to the region and the areas within the bands experienced the largest amount of snow. The area of I-95 where the 40-miles backup stranded travelers is within those heavy snowfall bands.

Marine Corps Base Quantico is located near the I-95 standstill and reported thundersnow which can produce sudden heavy snowfall as well, explained Bernier.

Rain in the area prior to the snowstorm was another factor leading to the traffic backup. Crews were unable to chemically pre-treat roads because of the rain, resulting in the loss of a standard practice that helps prevent ice and snow from accumulating.

Current information about snowfall in the area was hard to come by Monday since Orange County Airport and Stafford Regional Airport did not report weather updates. The airport in Orange County hasn’t reported weather updates in a while and the Stafford County airport doesn’t normally report information, said Bernier.

Weather updates from that area were only available from Shannon Airport, in Fredericksburg, and the Air Facility at Quantico.  

Parker said that VDOT did not think that they would need to shut down I-95. They worked through the night and hoped to reopen the roads by rush hour Tuesday morning, but at 4 a.m. they realized that would not be possible.

She said that some vehicles had four inches of ice underneath.

  • Aerial image of shutdown I-95
  • Aerial view of shutdown I-95
  • Aerial view of shutdown I-95

Virginia State Police said that there are no injuries or deaths related to the traffic jam and no reported crashes during the standstill. They started receiving reports about traffic on I-95 around 8:25 a.m. Monday and then it was a “chain reaction” – cars braking slowed down the vehicles behind them and traffic stopped.

Dozens of people have contacted 8News in desperation saying this had been a nightmare with no sign of relief.

“Everybody right now is just sleeping it off,” said Marvin Romero around 2 a.m. Tuesday. He had been stranded in his car with his two daughters since 3 p.m. Monday. “[We’ve been] waiting for the time when we can finally be free from this.”

“I’m here with my daughter, my other daughter is in the back sleeping, this was totally unexpected,” he said. “Thankfully, we had some water. I actually walked around handing water out to people who may need the little I had myself.”

Romero was able to get off I-95 later Tuesday morning.

Drivers who were stuck in the standstill said they had been starving, freezing and were worried about running out of gas before the traffic is relieved.

Nina Semesta was still stuck in the traffic as of 7:23 a.m. Tuesday and said she is afraid of running out of essentials.

“Right now, it’s below freezing. No easy access to gas, food or water and we can’t even exit the highway,” Semesta said.

The Virginia Department of Transportation said the winter storm is to blame and crews are “working diligently” to get several disabled trucks off the highway in Stafford and Spotsylvania.

At 5:43 Tuesday morning, VDOT’s Northern Virginia District tweeted that I-95 was closed northbound and southbound between exit 152 at Dumfries and exit 104 at Carmel Church. During the media briefing Tuesday morning, the timeline for when the interstate was closed and traffic rerouted was unclear. Although the agency tweeted about the closure at 5:43 a.m., they said later in the day that the interstate was closed at 8 a.m.

VDOT’s Fredericksburg District tweeted an update at 7:43 a.m. saying, “We are working to get traffic moving again as best we can using every available interchange between Prince William & Caroline counties. There are interchanges at the following mm: Exit 104, 110 Caroline, 118, 126 Spotsy, 130 FXBG 133, 136, 140, 143, 148 Stafford, 150 & 152 PW.”

Photo of backup as of 6:22 a.m.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam also shared an update on Twitter around 8:17 a.m. saying, “My team has been working throughout the night alongside VSP, VDOT and VDEM to respond to the situation on I-95. State and local emergency personnel are continuing to clear downed trees, assist disabled vehicles, and re-route drivers.”

A short time later at 8:27 a.m., Virginia Senator Tim Kaine said on Twitter that he had been stuck in the standstill as well. “I started my normal 2 hour drive to DC at 1pm yesterday. 19 hours later, I’m still not near the Capitol. My office is in touch with @VaDOT to see how we can help other Virginians in this situation. Please stay safe everyone,” he said

Around 10 a.m. Tuesday, 8News received an update from VDOT regarding the standstill noting that crews are working on the situation and motorists should continue to avoid the area.

“We know many travelers have been stuck on Interstate 95 in our region for extraordinary periods of time over the past 24 hours, in some cases since Monday morning. This is unprecedented, and we continue to steadily move stopped trucks to make progress toward restoring lanes. In addition to clearing the trucks, we are treating for snow and several inches of ice that has accumulated around them to ensure that when the lanes reopen, motorists can safely proceed to their destination,” said Marcie Parker, P.E. VDOT Fredericksburg District Engineer, in the media release.

VDOT provided an update at 3:15 p.m. on Tuesday stating that progress had been made towards clearing I-95. Closures are still ongoing for the following sections of the interstate:

  • I-95 north from Exit 104 for Carmel Church in Caroline County through Exit 148 for the Quantico Marine Corps Base at the county line of Stafford and Prince William
  • I-95 south from Exit 152 for Dumfries in Prince William County through Exit 136 for Route 17 in Stafford County

VDOT said they have crews working to get cars and people out of the northbound lanes between exits 104 and 118. Vehicles are exiting the interstate using multiple interchanges.

All cars and drivers have been cleared from I-95 north between exits 118 and 126.

As for southbound travelers, most vehicles have been cleared between exits 150 and 133 but there are still some disabled vehicles and trees left to remove.

The interstate will not reopen immediately after the cars are cleared, crews will first remove ice and snow from all of the lanes.

Other routes near I-95 may continue to experience delays. VDOT warns drivers to expect delays on routes 1, 207 and 301.

Across the Fredericksburg region there are 80 other roads that are closed due to downed trees or downed utility lines. If you need to report a fallen tree or other hazards, call VDOT’s Customer Service Center at 1-800-FOR-ROAD (367-7623) or use their website https://my.vdot.virginia.gov

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