Drivers are finally off Interstate 95 after being stuck on a 50-mile stretch in the Stafford County, Virginia, area for more than 24 hours, the Virginia Department of Transportation said.
"There are no people stranded still on I-95," VDOT announced in a tweet. "Less than 20 vehicles left to be removed from the interstate before plow trains will come through to remove snow and ice from the travel lanes."
Those 20 vehicles were abandoned amid the backup, caused by a collision involving multiple trucks during a major snowstorm that left snow and ice packed onto the road.
The interstate reopened at around 8:40 p.m., VDOT said.
Many drivers ran out of gas in freezing temperatures. Some didn't have food or water, and children, pets and people with medical needs are among those stuck in the traffic nightmare. Sen. Tim Kaine, who represents Virginia in the U.S. Senate, was among those trapped on the highway.
Vania Masaya was trapped in the gridlock with her young children and out of gas. Traffic came to a halt for them at about 9 a.m. Monday. Twelve hours later, they had barely moved, and the mother’s fear grew unbearable.
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“I just kept thinking, they’re gonna die in this cold,” she said Tuesday, nearly crying. “It was freezing. My daughter's cheeks were so cold.”
Finally, a firefighter came to their window and Masaya shouted for help.
“Can you please just take my kids? You don’t need to take us. Just take my kids, please,” she recalled saying.
The children spent the night inside an ambulance, under blankets on a gurney.
No injuries were reported.
Gov. Ralph Northam told News4 that Virginia State Police, VDOT and other state officials and crews were working nonstop to help people stranded in the gridlock and get drivers onto secondary routes.
“This has been a difficult night for a lot of folks. I’m very sorry that people have been stranded. We’re doing everything we can to get to these individuals, whether it be [giving them] water or a place to be warm,” Northam said Tuesday morning.
Efforts to clear the highway are complicated by a number of vehicles that are out of gas, broken down or stuck in snow, VDOT said.
Prince William County firefighters were seen handing out blankets and water bottles on Tuesday as traffic barely moved.
Stories From a Traffic Nightmare
Kaine finally made it to the Capitol after a nearly 27-hour-long trip from Richmond, NBC News reported.
He told News4 in an interview while he was stuck that he left Richmond at 1 p.m. Monday to try to negotiate a voting rights deal in the Senate.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he repeated in an interview Tuesday morning.
“This has been a miserable experience, but at some point I kind of made the switch to a miserable travel experience to a survival project,” he told our news partners, WTOP.
Kaine described “nice camaraderie” among the scores of travelers who are stuck, with people sharing food and drinks.
Driver Anne Gould said traffic stopped on Monday afternoon while she was on her annual trek to Florida. By Tuesday at about 6:20 a.m., Gould said she had only moved ahead in the gridlock by a few car lengths.
“There’s cars and trucks as far as I can see behind me, and in front of me, and it’s looked like this for 12 hours,” she said Tuesday morning.
Nisa Semesta, who was stuck on the southbound side for more than 12 hours with two cats in her car, said drivers couldn’t even get off the interstate for supplies. Side roads also were impassable.
“We’re really worried about our access to food, water and sanitation at the moment,” said. “I know some people are starting to get worried about gas.”
Truck driver Emily Clementson suggested people ask truck drivers if they have extra supplies, such as snacks or water bottles. She said many truck drivers prepare in case they get stranded.
Clementson said the conditions changed as soon as she and a co-driver got into Virginia.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Clementson said.
Timeline for Gridlock on I-95, and What Went Wrong
Snow, rain and sleet were falling early Monday and traffic was moving along on southbound I-95 — until several tractor-trailers jackknifed in Stafford at about 8:20 a.m.
What happened next was “unacceptable,” Marcie Parker, a VDOT engineer, said. Heavy snow was falling but salt trucks and plows could not get onto the highway to clear the snow.
The region got heavy snow much faster than anticipated, Parker told reporters.
“We did not anticipate the heaviness [of snow] for the length of time,” Parker said. “We knew that it was going to be coming down around an inch to an inch-and-a-half an hour, which is excessive, but it came down even faster at times, and we got more snow than was anticipated.”
Workers were overwhelmed by a large number of stuck and abandoned vehicles, and 4 inches of ice on the roadway hindered crews. Officials hoped that some sunshine Monday afternoon would help melt the snow. But it wasn’t enough.
VDOT did not think the highway would need to be shut down until 4 a.m. Tuesday, Parker said.
With traffic still not moving, feeder roads backed up as well, and tow trucks couldn’t get to stuck cars.
Finally, both directions of I-95 were shut down between Ruther Glen, in Caroline County, and Exit 152 in Dumfries, Prince William County. That's a stretch of nearly 50 miles through the Fredericksburg area, which recorded 14.1 inches of snow Monday.
Virginia State Police said the lengthy closure was implemented so crews could safely reach stranded motorists.
The governor resisted calls from social media users, including TV personality and author Meghan McCain, to deploy the National Guard.
“They’re available, and they do a wonderful job. We have the resources we need right now, we just need to be able to get them where they need to be,” Northam said.
Del. Todd Gilbert, who will soon become speaker of Virginia’s House of Delegates, is among those calling for Northam to mobilize the National Guard to rescue drivers.
“Local first responders are doing everything they can, but with so many people stranded, the Commonwealth needs to bring all of its resources to bear,” Gilbert said in a statement. “It’s not enough for the men, women, and the heavy vehicles of the Virginia National Guard to be ‘available.’ They need to be activated to bring aid to those who need it and to help get the Interstate open again."
Virginia State Police and VDOT officials took the National Guard question a step further, saying no localities had asked for the Guard, and it would have taken 12 to 24 hours to activate soldiers. Then they would have had to somehow make it through some very tough conditions themselves.
Towing crews, plows and Virginia State Police helped with the effort. Crews tried to move trucks blocking roads and drivers were advised to call 911 if someone needed urgent medical attention.
Hundreds of drivers got stuck or in crashes throughout the region Monday as snow accumulated until about 3 p.m.
Stay with NBC Washington for more details on this developing story.