We do apologize, and we’ll be taking an exhaustive look at this incident.
— VDOT spokeswoman Kelly Hannon
A 50-mile stretch of Interstate 95 reopened around 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, 36 hours after thousands of motorists were stranded, some for more than 24 hours, because Monday's snowstorm.
As crews finally began to clear the interstate around 1 p.m. Tuesday, Virginia Department of Transportation officials called the situation "unacceptable" and promised an "exhaustive look at this incident."
Thousands of motorists remained trapped after Monday’s storm dropped up to a foot snow, which then turned to ice, around the region.
“We’re making progress to detour I-95 traffic between Caroline County and [Prince William County] to nearest exits,” VDOT said in a tweet at noon Tuesday. “Once vehicles have been removed including disabled tractor trailers, our plow train made up of several trucks & motorgraders will come through to remove the packed snow & ice.”
Marcie Parker, VDOT’s Fredericksburg District engineer, said the agency was overwhelmed by snowfall rates during the storm.
“I do believe VDOT was prepared for this storm but anticipated snowfall rates were faster than anticipated. We got more snow than initially predicted and the rate was harder,” she said during a Tuesday media briefing. “Pretty much when it gets over an inch and hour, we have a hard time keeping up.”
Though the storm was forecast well in advance, it started with rain and VDOT did not pretreat I-95.
“It would have just washed away any pretreatment,” Parker said.
Parker called the situation “unacceptable” and said the agency will be reviewing what went wrong. The trouble began early Monday with whiteout conditions in Stafford County, causing multiple tractor-trailers to jackknife. I-95 south was closed all day Monday, reopening briefly around 5:45 p.m., before closing down again. Northbound lanes fared slightly better, with one lane open through Stafford most of the day Monday. But by nightfall, it, too, was impassable.
Virginia State Police say there were no reports of deaths or injuries during the closure, though many stranded drivers were posting desperate pleas on social media though the night.
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine was one of the stranded drivers, tweeting Tuesday morning that his usual two-hour drive to the Capitol had turned into 19 hours.
“I don’t know what’s been going on behind the scenes, but I feel like we’ve known this storm was coming, I’ve seen how we handled prior storms. I had a certain expectation how it would be handled and that expectation wasn’t met,” said Rebecca Barnes, who was stuck on I-95 north in Caroline County since 7 p.m. Monday returning from a trip to Florida to see family.
Barnes, owner of Prince William Living magazine and a first responder with the Occoquan-Woodbridge-Lorton Volunteer Fire Department, said the temperature dipped overnight to 14 degrees and the ground was too icy for those stranded to even get out of their cars and walk away.
As of 1 p.m., VDOT and state police began detouring stranded drivers who still had gas exit by exit both north and southbound before getting to work removing possibly hundreds of disabled vehicles and trucks.
But for those trapped on the interstate, some without food, gas or warm clothing, VDOT’s updates were no comfort.
Barnes said VDOT and state police made no effort to check on drivers stuck south of Fredericksburg or offer any assistance.
“I’d like to see some National Guard, some troopers walking over from the southbound side,” said Barnes, who was well-equipped to get through a night stuck on interstate and was traveling with family, but worried for others who were alone and unprepared.
On Twitter, families of drivers trapped pleaded for help, urging Gov. Ralph Northam to declare a state of emergency and send in the National Guard.
“Where is the National Guard? Please help us!!!” one wrote.
Another tweeted to Northam that he had been stuck in his car for 18 hours without insulin.
“Can someone please send help? I’m starting to feel very weak,” he wrote.
Another said her daughter and three grandchildren, one a 2-month-old baby with special needs, were trapped going on 14 hours and had run out of food.
Northam tweeted Tuesday morning that an “emergency message” was going out to those stranded “connecting them to support, and the state is working with localities to open warming shelters as needed.”
When pressed during Tuesday’s media briefing about why the National Guard wasn’t called in to help, Virginia Department of Emergency Management Communications Director Lauren Opett said no requests came from the state or localities to do so.
In Prince William County, fire and rescue personnel were using the Express Lanes — which remained closed to allow passage of first responders and highway crews — to hand out snacks, water and gas to those stranded.
When asked by reporters Tuesday why there had been no apology to the stranded motorists, VDOT Fredericksburg spokeswoman Kelly Hannon said, “We do apologize, and we’ll be taking an exhaustive look at this incident.”
VDOT said it expects the interstate to be fully reopened by Wednesday morning’s rush hour. Another media briefing is scheduled for 4 p.m. today.