FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (WRIC/WFXR) — Hundreds of motorists were stranded on I-95 Tuesday — including U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, who spent over 27 hours driving from Richmond to Washington, D.C. — due to a major, 40-mile traffic jam that started building up on Monday during Virginia’s first snowstorm of the year.
After a day of questions and reactions from travelers and the surrounding communities, all disabled vehicles were cleared from the interstate around Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, and Stafford by the end of the day on Tuesday, Jan. 4.
I-95 was open to new cars until around 5:45 a.m. on Tuesday, despite crashes and delays being reported throughout the day on Monday, Jan. 3.
WFXR’s sister station, WRIC, has confirmed with some interstate drivers that they had been completely stuck since as early as 3 p.m. on Monday, which means that more than 12 hours went by where more drivers could enter the already-jammed section of interstate.
Despite the interstate closing early Tuesday morning, there were still hundreds of cars stranded there as of Tuesday afternoon.
According to Virginia State Police, there were several hundred disabled and abandoned vehicles along the I-95 corridor. While some of those cars may have been abandoned, many were not.
The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) says that many people stuck in the standstill remained with their vehicles as temperatures dipped below freezing Monday night into Tuesday morning.
During a press briefing on Tuesday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced state troopers had been walking along the sections of I-95 that were shut down, providing people with water, blankets, food, and medicine as needed.
Sister station WRIC contacted Northam for an interview about this emergency event, but their requests have been repeatedly ignored or denied.
As of Tuesday afternoon, there have been no injuries or fatalities reported as a result of the traffic incidents or travelers’ freezing overnight stay on the interstate.
What caused this backup?
Monday’s winter storm started off with rain, which then turned to snow. Because of the morning rainfall, VDOT says crews were unable to treat the roads ahead of the winter storm.
When the snow did fall, the Fredericksburg area saw especially high quantities of snow in a short period of time. According to Northam, the Commonwealth had prepared for a few inches of snow, but the Fredericksburg area got over a foot of snowfall.
VDOT Commissioner Stephen Brich says that the segment of I-95 from mile marker 104 to mile marker 153 received 8 to 11 inches of snow that fell quickly.
Northam called the storm one of the largest storms seen in central Virginia in some time. Meanwhile, VDOT described the storm as “unprecedented.”
However, Virginia Department of Emergency Management State Coordinator Curtis Brown explained during the press conference what factors would qualify winter weather as a storm of record, but did not go as far as to say that this incident belonged in that category.
During the winter weather, there were numerous incidents, including tractor-trailers jackknifing and blocking multiple lanes of traffic.
WFXR’s sister station previously reported that tractor-trailer crashes happening as early as 12:45 p.m. on Monday.
During the briefing, it was announced that the first crash on the impacted stretch of road actually happened around 8 a.m. on Monday. Even for the first crash, Virginia State Police say it took around 20 minutes for responders to reach the scene.
As the day went on and temperatures dropped, ice developed on the roads, adding to the storm’s impact on travel.
According to VDOT, traffic-blocking incidents had occurred throughout the day, but there was still some traffic flow and crashes being recovered. VDOT says that cars came to a complete standstill after midnight.
What was the state response?
The stressful and fear-inducing scenes of people stranded in their cars, bundled up to keep their families warm, left many — including state lawmakers — asking where the National Guard was during this emergency event.
During the press briefing on Tuesday, Virginia state leaders explained that response from the National Guard could take an entire day. Instead, the Commonwealth opted to utilize state troopers as the first responders.
According to the governor, Virginia State Police were able to provide an immediate response with the resources and manpower needed to address the issue.
Northam says that none of the localities impacted by the day-long traffic shutdown requested help from the National Guard.
VDOT says they had crews ready on Sunday, Jan. 2 to respond to issues on Virginia’s roads. The agency prioritized interstates over other roads. There were efforts to plow I-95 on Monday.
According to the state, the interstate traffic was not fully at a stop until around midnight after being backed up for several hours. After midnight, VDOT was no longer able to get any plows onto I-95.
The approximately 40-mile long stretch of I-95 was officially closed at 5:45 a.m. on Tuesday, but the process to close the interstate took hours and not all entrances were shut off immediately.
Instead of closing the entrances earlier, while traffic was still moving in some places, VDOT says they urged drivers to avoid the roads:
The decision was made on Tuesday morning to clear interstate express lanes and use them for emergency aid.
Once traffic started to clear from the interstate on Tuesday, Virginia State Police says the process was slow. In many areas three lanes of cars were condensing to exit in one lane, causing bottlenecks.
When were cars fully cleared?
At 5:15 p.m. on Tuesday, VDOT’s Fredericksburg District announced that there was no longer anyone stuck on I-95. All that remained were 20 abandoned vehicles.
After removing all of the disabled vehicles and tractor-trailers through the 40-mile stretch of the highway, snowplows and motor graders worked to remove the snow and ice from the road.
By 8:40 p.m. on Tuesday, VDOT announced that I-95 had been treated and reopened.
However, Northam urges Virginians to avoid travel — especially with the freezing temperatures and hazardous travel conditions through Stafford, Spotsylvania, and Caroline counties — unless absolutely necessary.