By SARAH RANKIN and MICHAEL KUNZELMAN, Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – Hundreds of motorists were desperate for help on Tuesday after a winter storm hampered traffic in Virginia and left some drivers stranded for nearly 24 hours in freezing temperatures along a impassable stretch of highway south of the national capital.

The problems began Monday morning when a truck jacked up on Interstate 95, the main north-south highway along the East Coast, setting off a rapid chain reaction as other vehicles lost control state police said. Two-way lanes were blocked on a 40-mile stretch of I-95 north of Richmond. As the hours passed and night fell, motorists posted messages on social media about the lack of fuel, food and water.

Meera Rao and her husband Raghavendra were driving home after visiting their daughter in North Carolina when they got stranded on Monday night. They were only 100 feet from an exit but couldn’t move for about 16 hours.

“Not a single policeman (officer) came during the 16 hours we were stuck,” she said. “Nobody came. It was just shocking. Being in the most advanced country in the world, nobody knew how to clear a way so that we could all get out of this mess?”

Political cartoons

There were no immediate reports of serious injuries or fatalities.

Towards dawn, en route crews began helping drivers get off “at any available interchange,” the Virginia Department of Transportation tweeted.

At a press conference, officials could not say how many backup kilometers remained or how many cars were still stranded.

“I couldn’t even imagine how many there were,” said Marcie Parker, an engineer with the Virginia Department of Transportation leading the effort to clean up the freeway.

An Associated Press photographer who flew in a helicopter along a 50-mile freeway observed a dozen groups of vehicles stranded Tuesday afternoon.

Parker said crews were first trying to clear vehicles that could move on their own. Then they would tow the disabled or abandoned and plow, she said, adding that the pavement needed to be cleared for the rush hour on Wednesday morning.

People could be seen walking on traffic lanes still covered in ice and snow.

Gov. Ralph Northam said his team responded overnight by sending emergency messages to put drivers in touch with help and working with local authorities to set up heated shelters as needed. Officials told reporters that teams were helping distribute food, water and fuel.

People stranded overnight and their families blasted Northam on Twitter, asking why the Virginia National Guard had not been deployed.

Northam said in an interview that he chose not to seek National Guard help because the problem facing state crews was not a lack of manpower, but the difficulty in getting workers and equipment through snow and ice to where they needed to be. He said efforts were complicated by broken down vehicles, freezing temperatures and ice.

The affected section of the highway was not pretreated, Parker said, as heavy rain preceded snow, which sometimes fell as much as 2 inches per hour.

“It was just too much for us to follow,” she said.

Rao said they turned off their car’s engine at least 30 times to save gasoline and turned on just enough heat to warm up. They had chips, nuts and apples to eat, but Rao didn’t want to drink bottled water because she had a sprained ankle and didn’t think she could reach a makeshift toilet.

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

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

According to the National Weather Service, up to 11 inches of snow fell in the area during Monday’s blizzard, and state police had warned people to avoid driving unless absolutely necessary, d ‘especially as the colder night temperatures set in.

To make matters worse, traffic cameras went offline as much of central Virginia lost power in the storm, the Department of Transportation said.

Sen. Tim Kaine, who lives in Richmond, said he was stuck in his car 21 hours after starting his two-hour drive to the Capitol at 1 p.m. Monday.

“It has been a miserable experience,” Kaine told the WTO. The traffic was so heavy that emergency vehicles struggled to remove disabled cars and trucks, he said.

Kaine described the camaraderie among those stranded, including a Connecticut family returning from vacation in Florida who paced lines of parked cars sharing a sack of oranges.

Darryl Walter, of Bethesda, Md., Was stranded for 10 hours on his way home from a beach vacation in Florida with his wife, son and dog Brisket.

They had a few bottles of water, bags of crisps, a blanket to warm up and Trivial Pursuit to pass the time. Walter said the worst part of the ordeal was not knowing how long it would last.

Walter felt lucky that he was able to return home as soon as they did, knowing that many more were stranded for much longer. They passed a long line of cars heading south that couldn’t get past the jackknifed trucks.

“It had to be 15 miles of backup,” he said.

A planned hour’s drive from her parents’ house turned into a 16-hour nightmare for Susan Phelan when she got stuck in the northbound lanes of I-95 and didn’t budge for about 10 hours.

After a freezing night with no sleep, no food or water, she pulled into the driveway of her Alexandria, Va. Home just before noon on Tuesday.

“Mom was right: Always pack a Snickers bar,” said Phelan, a former federal communications official. “At some point in the traffic jam, I was going to have to start knocking on windows to ask for water. At that time, everyone was helping everyone. If you needed anything, that wasn’t a problem.

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

Teams used the expressways that separate the north and southbound lanes to reach patients, he said.

Parker said the position of the traffic safeguards relative to express lanes meant they weren’t very helpful in clearing traffic jams.

Kelly Hannon, spokesperson for the Department of Transportation, apologized to motorists and said the department would “thoroughly” review the incident.

Kunzelman reported from College Park, Maryland. Associated Press editors Bryan Gallion in Roseland, New Jersey, and Julie Walker in New York City also contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.