It was a commute for the ages.
“It’s a rush hour that will not be forgotten for a long time,” said Joan Morris, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).
The commuters would agree.
Roadways throughout the D.C. region turned into snowy parking lots Wednesday evening as thick, wet snow fell and piled up quickly. It didn't matter whether you were on the Beltway, I-270, I-66, or the George Washington Parkway. You were hardly moving at all.
As accidents crippled most of the major roadways, the typical half-hour commute turned into an 8-hour odyssey for some.
The crashes and icy conditions throughout the area put transportation and public-works teams in a jam. Authorities couldn’t get tow trucks to disabled cars, which in turn meant more people were gridlocked. Some people ended up abandoning their cars altogether and trying to walk home. Traffic backed up for miles.
Brad Hughes, 33, was heading home from work in Herndon at around 3 pm. Home is Manassas. Just minutes into his drive, he called his wife, Jamie Hughes, to say he'd probably not make it home.
He'd run into the Fairfax County Parkway.
Jamie Hughes estimated that her husband moved about eight miles in nearly seven hours. His plan, if you can call it that, was to just get off the parkway and find some, any, accommodations. The gridlock, said Jamie Hughes, was compounded by stuck vehicles and boneheaded moves. One motorist in a Ford F-150 tried to maneuver across the parkway median to get to the faster side. He got stuck.
Jamie Hughes said her husband spotted no emergency vehicles or plows in his time out there. She was told that tow trucks were running six hours behind.
Brad Hughes eventually made it to his cousin's house in the wee hours.
Among the worst of the roads was the George Washington Parkway. Drivers reported to TBD that they'd been stuck on the parkway for hours and that no officials were warning drivers not to get on it. One man said he got past Spout Run around 4 p.m. but then it came to a stall. Hours later his fellow commuters were running out of gas in the freezing cold.
The Maryland side was no better. Michael Wilder, 32, was stuck on 295 South near Blue Plains for at least six hours. A Verizon technician, Wilder said his commute typically takes 45 minutes.
The traffic was bumper to bumper. Wilder said he saw at least 20 abandoned vehicles on the road and plows sitting in traffic. Some cars were skidded out on the side of the road. But, amazingly, he said he saw no accidents.
Wilder said he passed the time talking to friends on his phone and listening to music. He listened to three entire CDs in his car.
One of the biggest issues facing local governments was getting equipment to trouble spots on the interstate. Tow trucks and plows were stuck in traffic right alongside commuters.
VDOT, for instance, had deployed 2,000 plows on the roads Wednesday, but some couldn’t reach roads because of the congestion.
It didn’t help that the snowstorm started just before rush hour.
VDOT and the D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT) had prepared for the snow beforehand by treating the roads with salt and de-icer solutions. According to VDOT's Morris, this preventive move had gone a long way in this winter's earlier storms. But this time around the afternoon rains managed to wash much of the pre-treatment away.
Speaking to TBD last night, Laura Bannister, 54, said that her sister, 50-year-old Nancy Bannister, found herself in a bind by the junction of the Fairfax County Parkway and I-66. Nancy Bannister left her office at the Ashburn campus of George Washington University at 3 pm. Not long after that, the budget analyst hit a two-hour backup on Route 50 in Chantilly.
But after getting through that mess, Bannister spent the next four-plus hours going nowhere at the Fairfax County Parkway. "She's scared to death and has less than a half-tank of gas," Laura Bannister said. "She's surrounded by hundreds of people."
Again, abandoned cars were partly to blame for the complete gridlock. "Snowplows can't get through," said Laura Bannister, who was checking in with her sister every hour or so to see if she was all right.
It wasn't much better if you were riding Metrobus. Metro had sent out a notification early in the day saying the agency expected a "normal" day despite the forecast. Metro was eventually forced to pull buses off the roads at 9:30 p.m., but the trouble started long before then.
Passengers at the West Falls Church station stood for hours in the cold as buses were unable to get on their routes. Among the miserable throngs was Steve Hall.
Hall's commute, which usually takes just an hour, took well over three. But unlike people stuck in their cars, Hall was stuck outside with upwards of 400 of his fellow commuters.
At one point, the line of stranded commuters stretched out the station. But throughout the night, people began peeling off. Hall believed some people, tired of waiting, took the Metro back to their offices or to friends’ houses.
Hall, however, held out hope that a bus would come.
“For a long time we were joking that it’d be just nice to see a bus,” he said, adding that he was so cold he had trouble speaking.
By about 9:45 p.m., transportation had come for many of the people waiting at the stop. At that point, Hall could see a bus coming that he predicted would be one that would take him home.
Some Metrobus riders in Silver Spring had even worse luck. Mary Lively had hopped on the Z11 Metrobus in downtown Silver Spring around 5:30 p.m. yesterday. Some five hours later, she was still sitting on that bus, according to her daughter, Myia Holmes.
“It hasn’t moved,” Holmes told TBD last night at 10:30.
To make matters worse, Holmes says her mother suffers from a degenerative bone disease and isn't supposed to sit still for long stretches. “It’s not good for her to stay in one position,” she said.
Since 5:45 p.m. her mother had been sending Holmes updates on the situation via text message. Lively wasn’t the only passenger who remained on the bus throughout the ordeal. According to Holmes, several passengers were worried they would be put off the bus in the cold, or that the driver would simply leave. Holmes is epileptic and can’t drive, and she hadn’t been able to get a cab to pick her mother up.
“I don’t know what to do to get someone to get her off the bus,” she said.
At 11 p.m., Holmes called TBD back in tears to say that her mother had been told to leave the bus.
Lively eventually caught a cab and got home around 1 a.m. According to Holmes, the driver stayed with his bus the entire time.