When he set out from Brooklyn on Monday for a return trip to Miami, reporter Jim DeFede knew there was snow in the forecast for part of his planned route through Virginia.
But it was a trip he’d made many times before, on Interstate 95, one of the busiest roadways in the country, usually in about 19 hours.
“This is not some side road in the Cascades,” said DeFede, a former reporter with The Spokesman-Review who now works for the CBS affiliate in Miami. “It’s not some road north of Spokane. I’m not trying to drive down to Pullman in crazy weather.”
And for the first six hours of the trip, while it was slower than normal, the traffic was moving even when the snow started to fall as he passed from Maryland into Virginia. Until he got outside the nation’s capital near Quantico, Virginia.
“Everything ground to a halt,” he said.
Snow and ice turned I-95 into a giant three-lane parking lot in both directions for about 50 miles, stranding thousands of people in their cars and trucks with no information of when they might be able to move. Drivers and their passengers went hours without seeing a state trooper or a snow plow, DeFede said.
At one point, he received an unhelpful alert on his cell phone that said: “Attention I-95 drivers, conditions are bad.” Later, he received one that said state and local help was on the way as soon as possible, although he didn’t see any.
Soon it was getting dark and he had to turn on the engine every so often to keep from freezing inside his Nissan Pathfinder.
“My biggest fear was the engine would run out of gas,” DeFede recalled in a phone interview. He had three-fourths of a tank of gasoline, but there was no telling how long he’d be stuck. “Then every time I turned off my engine, I thought ‘What if it doesn’t restart the next time?’ ”
He had plenty of snacks, but no large bottle to use as a makeshift urinal, and had to rely on plastic bags.
“I could see the road outside turning to glazing ice,” he recalled, and was afraid if he went outside to relieve himself he’d “fall, crack my head, land in the snow, roll in a ditch” and they’d find his body when the snow melted.
He called relatives to get information about what was going on, and when they sent him links to news stories he reposted them on Twitter. He rationed his snacks and got little sleep through the night. At about 7 a.m. he saw a truck driver walking down the highway between cars, handing out bottles of water. Shortly after that, a man walked by handing out loaves of bread.
When DeFede asked where the bread came from, the man explained he and his wife were parked behind a truck for a family -owned bakery. His wife called the headquarters to explain how they were all stuck on I-95 and people were hungry. She was put through to the family member who ran transportation for the bakery, who then called the driver and told him to pass out the bread to anyone who wanted it.
Being a reporter, DeFede decided to do an on-the-spot interview, recording it on his iPhone because he didn’t have a news camera.
Late Tuesday morning, DeFede looked in his rearview mirror and noticed there were spaces in the road. Around 11:30 a.m., Prince William County firefighter knocked on his window and said “We’re going to get you out next.”
But first they had to free the tires from the ice and turn the Pathfinder around so it could travel north on the southbound lanes to an exit about a half mile away. He couldn’t continue south, so he had to go slowly north to Manassas, Virginia, where he got a hotel room for the night.
He did a report for his Miami station, an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN and a string of interviews with local television and radio stations before passing out and going to sleep around 9:30 p.m. He got up the next morning and continued his journey.
Although he initially thought of taking a different route, he decided to return to I-95.
“I was not going to let I-95 beat me,” DeFede said, adding he figured if ever there was a time when the highway was going to be clear and maintained, it was going to be the day after the freeze-up.
After all, he said, the best time to eat at a restaurant that’s been closed by the Health Department is the first day they reopen because everything’s been scrubbed.
As he drove through South Carolina on the way to Georgia, DeFede said he thought he’d be able to keep a sense of humor about the ordeal. The next time he’s stuck in traffic for a half hour or so, he’ll be able to shrug and say “this is nothing.”
But he will pack a special bag for emergency situations and keep it in the car for any future trip.
A bag that will include a large bottle for those long-term emergencies when nature calls.
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