I-95 Is a Snow-Covered Dystopian Hellscape. These Truckers Came to the Rescue

As truckers, it’s second nature for Emily Slaughter and Michele Rusher to keep tabs on bad weather and road closures. But as the drivers, who work for the shipping company New Prime, Inc., headed southbound on Interstate 95 early Tuesday morning, Jan. 4, no radio updates or electronic road signs suggested they were about to hit the worst traffic jam imaginable. 

At around one or two in the morning, Rusher and Slaughter joined a mass of cars stuck on the snow-covered, ice-slicked roads of Northern Virginia. A sudden winter storm the day before had blanketed this stretch of highway outside of Washington D.C., and many drivers (including U.S. Senator Tim Kaine) were stranded overnight in their cars with no food or water in freezing temperatures, trying to stay warm while conserving gas.

“We have been stuck in traffic jams; we get stuck in traffic jams every day,” Slaughter tells Rolling Stone from U.S. Route 1, where she and Rusher were able to get to (though the back-up is just as bad there). “But this is the craziest thing we have definitely ever been stuck in. We have been shut down before due to weather and due to accidents, but I think the longest I have ever been shut down for an accident was like an hour, maybe an hour and a half.”

“I’ve been shut down in Flagstaff, Arizona and Wyoming,” Rusher adds. “Wyoming put the signs up, Flagstaff put the state troopers out and they either forced you to stay where you were, or directed you to the next exit. This, I had no clue.” 

As to what caused the chaos, Slaughter puts it bluntly: “They did not plow or salt the roads efficiently. That’s what happened.”

I-95 remains closed and the hope is to have the highway open by the end of the day, the Virginia Department of Transportation said on Tuesday. In a news release, Marcie Parker, a district engineer for VDOT, said, “We know many travelers have been stuck on Interstate 95 in our region for extraordinary periods of time over the past 24 hours, in some cases since Monday morning. This is unprecedented, and we continue to steadily move stopped trucks to make progress toward restoring lanes. In addition to clearing the trucks, we are treating for snow and several inches of ice that has accumulated around them to ensure that when the lanes reopen, motorists can safely proceed to their destination.”

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam told The Washington Post, “It’s warming up a bit. The sun is out. I anticipate that we’ll get to these folks today and hopefully by tonight we’ll have Interstate 95 open again.”

Tera Hulse, a 26-year-old student, got stuck in the traffic jam Monday afternoon around 4 p.m. ET as she, her boyfriend and two dogs drove back home to Washington D.C. from North Carolina. They came to a stop at the welcome center sign for Fredericksburg (of all things, they were listening to a podcast about the Donner Party at the time). They too had no clue what they were driving into, with Hulse noting the traffic time on her map remained at 30 minutes and the radio mostly announced school closings. Over the next 10 hours, she inched their car forward just one mile, often struggling to keep the Jeep steady on black ice.

“The Virginia Department of Transportation was sending out tweets like, ‘Oh, there’s like emergency people that are coming to talk to you, they’ll give you supplies,’” she says. “We didn’t see anyone.”

At about two in the morning Tuesday, with only half a tank of gas and bag of cookies available, Hulse decided to see how reliable her Jeep was. She steered the vehicle off road and not only managed to make a path for itself, but left a line of cars  to follow in her wake. The caravan made it to the top of a hill near the exit for Woodbridge, Virginia. Despite seeing a stretch of open, empty lanes, their route was blocked by the police. For the next several hours they sat again, first as a salt truck came by and then as cops kept the roads clear while a stuck semi-truck tried to free itself. But even after it did, the problems continued.

“All the cars behind us were bottlenecked and the police, instead of trying to direct traffic or help anybody, just blocked the two lanes, sat in their cars and were like, ‘Figure it out,’” Hulse says. “Thankfully we managed to get onto the salted roads and the first thing we did was stop at a gas station and use the bathroom because at that point it was six a.m. We made it back to D.C. at 7:30 in the morning and pretty much just collapsed into bed.” 

Isaac Arcos, a 23-year-old Marine from North Carolina, joined the traffic jam himself late Monday night while driving northbound to the Marine Corps base at Quantico. He too said he got no warning about the calamity ahead, and ended up spending the night in his car.

“It was roughly 18 degrees outside, so after shutting down my vehicle, I set the alarm on my phone to wake me up every 30 to 40 minutes, just so I could turn on my vehicle again and turn on the heat because of the vehicle’s poor insulation,” he says, adding: “I don’t have any snacks. I have bread. But that’s about it. But at the same time, I’m not really craving anything — I’m kind of too tired to be hungry.”

Like Hulse, Arcos tried to finagle his way out of the jam, though he found himself following the tracks of a truck that drove past him. He only managed to move about a half-mile, though, only for his car to get stuck in the snow. “So obviously I panic a little bit and I’m going a little bit crazy in my car, like how am I going to get out of this, I can’t embarrass myself,” he says. “But then out of nowhere, these two truck drivers get out of the vehicle to help me get back on the road.”

With the official response to the chaotic traffic jam severely lacking, the real heroes of the catastrophe were those who know America’s roads better than anyone: truckers. Slaughter was one of several drivers who put out messages on social media urging anyone in need of food, water, or blankets to find the nearest trucker, who’d almost certainly have items to spare. Both Hulse and Arcos note they saw messages to this effect while checking social media for updates, and Arcos — who along with being helped himself — said he saw truckers handing out extra supplies to people in need. 

Slaughters says she and Rusher haven’t been approached for help themselves, but with traffic still backed up, she remains adamant: “The biggest thing I want to get across to people is, please don’t be intimidated by the truckers. I don’t want to see any casualties from being cold or not being able to get food. Please go to a trucker. We have an abundance of food and water and blankets and phone chargers, if you need.”

Rusher echoes the sentiment, and adds some additional asphalt-pusher wisdom: “I’m concerned about the folks that don’t have food and water, and they have been sitting since yesterday. This is not the first and won’t be the last time that we’re in situations like this. If you are in a state with snow and [bad] weather, you already have a spare tire for your car — you should also have water, a blanket and snacks.”

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