Hundreds stranded all night in freezing temperatures on snowy US highway

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Hundreds of motorists waited desperately for help on Tuesday after a winter storm jammed traffic in the US state of Virginia and left some drivers stranded for nearly 24 hours in freezing temperatures on an impassable stretch of highway.

Problems began on Monday morning when a truck jack-knifed on Interstate 95, the main north-south highway along the East Coast, triggering a swift chain reaction as other vehicles lost control, state police said.

Lanes in both directions became blocked along a 40-mile stretch of I-95 north of Richmond. As hours passed and night fell, motorists posted messages on social media about running out of fuel, food and water.

“Not one police (officer) came in the 16 hours we were stuck,” she 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?”

There were no immediate reports of serious injuries or deaths.

Around daybreak, road crews began helping drivers get off “at any available interchange”, the Virginia Department of Transportation tweeted.

Motorists stranded on Interstate 95 (WJLA/AP)

Emily Wade said only about 20 cars remained on the affected section of road between Richmond and Washington DC, and all of those were abandoned.

She added that some motorists on the highway may still be in the process of being routed around closures.

It is not clear when the whole stretch will be reopened.

State governor 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. Officials told reporters crews were helping distribute food, water and fuel.

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

He said 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 road was not pre-treated, Ms Parker said, because heavy rain preceded the snow, which fell at times as heavily as 2in an hour.

“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 had 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.

Wintere Weather Interstate Shutdown
A closed section of Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg (Virginia Department of Transportation/AP)

Ms Rao said they stopped their car engine at least 30 times to conserve fuel and ran the heat just enough to keep warm.

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

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

Up to 11in 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 night-time temperatures set in.

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

Senator Tim Kaine, who lives in Richmond, said he was stuck in his car for more than 27 hours after starting his two-hour commute to the Capitol at 1pm on Monday.

“This has been a miserable experience,” he told WTOP.

Mr Kaine described camaraderie among those who were stranded, including a Connecticut family returning from a Florida holiday who walked up and down lines of stranded cars sharing a bag of oranges.

In Prince William County, emergency crews responded to 10 calls from motorists, including complaints about hypothermia and diabetics concerned about a prolonged lack of food, said Matt Smolsky, assistant fire chief. None of the calls were life-threatening, but four patients were transported.

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