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Officials finally clear up crashes that kept drivers in freezing temperatures on I-95

A closed section of Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg, Va., shown on Tuesday. Both northbound and southbound sections of the highway were closed due to snow and ice.
Virginia Department of Transportation
A closed section of Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg, Va., shown on Tuesday. Both northbound and southbound sections of the highway were closed due to snow and ice.

Updated January 4, 2022 at 9:25 PM ET

Drivers along a 50-mile stretch of Interstate 95 in Virginia, south of the nation's capital, are no longer trapped in freezing temperatures after heavy snowfall contributed to spinouts and crashes.

"I-95 is open after being closed for emergency response for most of the day," Virginia's Department of Transportation announced in a tweet just after 9:30 p.m. ETon Tuesday — more than 24 hours after the traffic nightmare began.

"All disabled vehicles have been removed from the interstate," the state DOT continued.

Hundreds of drivers became stranded in standstill traffic during Monday's rush hour and some remained stuck for 16 hours or more, according to WTOP.

State police said several tractor-trailers jackknifed on the slippery interstate, making the road impassable and causing a massive backup of commuters.

Traffic was still not back to normal by early afternoon on Tuesday, and some people were still stranded.

Gov. Ralph Northam sent an emergency alert to drivers saying supplies and help were on the way.

Some drivers slept in their cars

Andrew Stein of Washington, D.C., was making his way back from South Carolina when he hit the jam near Fredericksburg, Va. He told member station WAMU that he tried to take another route but got stuck there too.

"I think I've gone through the five stages of grief," Stein said. "I think I'm now at acceptance but getting a little worried because I'm low on gas."

Stein ended up sleeping in his car, but a nearby hotel, which was full, allowed him a place to warm up and get something to eat.

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine was one of those that stayed overnight in his car.

He spoke to NPR's All Things Considered about what was supposed to be a 2-hour trip.

He spent more than 27 hours trying to get from Richmond to D.C. for a voting rights meeting.

"I got bogged down a number of times where the ice and the snow were so bad," he said, "and the cars were just stopped for five or six hours at a time."

He spent the night surrounded by other cars and trucks. Some had slid off the road or run out of gas as drivers tried to stay warm. "It was pretty grim," he said.

Kaine said he got through the night and conserved his gas by running his heater on "full blast" for 10 minutes, turning it off, and then waiting to turn it back on when it became too cold for him.

Others abandoned their vehicles

"Some people were seen abandoning their vehicles in snow-covered travel lanes, walking down I-95 to parts unknown," according to WTOP traffic reporter Dave Dildine. "Some callers were sobbing and scared."

Despite the below-freezing temperatures overnight, many drivers reportedly shut off their engines to conserve gas as they waited in the dark.

In a live report from his car stuck on the highway, NBC reporter Josh Lederman on Morning Joe described the situation as an "insane and fairly dystopian experience."

He said motorists were monitoring Twitter in hopes of getting some indication of when things would start moving again. "There was one point where they briefly opened one lane overnight and we got to move about a quarter of a mile down the road. Then it crashed again."

Meera Rao told The Associated Press that she and her husband got stuck only 100 feet from an exit. They remained there, unable to move, for 16 hours.

"Not one police [officer] came in the 16 hours we were stuck," Rao 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?"

A single lane was open by Tuesday morning

By about 9 a.m. ET, vehicles began creeping along one lane in a single direction as road crews began getting a handle on the situation, helping drivers get off "at any available interchange" to reopen the road, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) said.

At about 11:30 a.m. ET, VDOT tweeted a caution to Tuesday's commuters to expect congestion. "Crews are working to reopen I-95 as soon as possible," the department said.

The Virginia State Police said early Tuesday that in an effort to "safely reach stranded motorists & get traffic moving once again," that incoming traffic to the highway at some exits was being restricted.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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Vanessa Romo
Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.
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