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After D.C. storm, bewildered drivers ask: 'Dude, where's my car?'

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 27, 2011; 10:49 PM

This is what happens the next morning - after the epic traffic jams are gone and hundreds of abandoned vehicles, emptied of gas and stuck in the snow, have been towed.

On Thursday, it was as though an entire city woke up to exclaim in a panicked, slightly screechy voice: "Dude, where's my car?"

And then, as the answer became increasingly clear and appallingly costly, came the anger.

All morning long at a Lorton impound lot, you could practically see the waves of resentment coming off people in the waiting room. At one point, the line of those searching for their cars after one of Washington's ugliest commutes went out the door.

But as each person stepped up to the counter to fork over the $200 impound fee, most simply muttered inaudibly underneath their breath.

"It's been a frustrating 24 hours for everyone," said a diplomatic J.J. Redman, whose father owns Redman Fleet Services' impound lot.

They had worked many snowstorms before, he said, as phones in the background rang nonstop, but this had been one of the worst. Overnight, their company had towed about 160 cars in Arlington and Fairfax.

And throughout the Washington region, other companies had done the same. Towing, officials said, clears the streets for plows and traffic. It reintroduces order to a city that has descended into a icy mess of snow and panicked drivers.

But towing also inevitably brings a wave of confusion.

On Thursday morning, Alvester Woolfolk, 22, returned to find his abandoned car gone from the exit ramp between the Beltway and Route 210. The night before, he'd spent hours on that small stretch of highway, where he'd helped to push other people's cars out of the snow. Finally, when he got back into his car, his own wheels had become stuck.

"I helped push seven cars out of trouble, but then when I looked back, I couldn't get no one to help me," he said. So he left his Oldsmobile Alero on the side of the ramp, and started the long walk to a Giant to get a ride from a friend.

The next day, it was as though the night before had never even happened. The snow was gone, as were the string of cars that had been abandoned alongside his. Police at the nearby precinct sent Woolfolk and his dad on a wild goose chase of impound lots, none of which had his car.

So they gave up and started driving home to Accokeek, when, along the way, Woolfolk spotted a familiar burgundy car with tinted windows in a lot in Oxon Hill.

"It was right out front. I could tell it was my car even as we were driving up," said Woolfolk. "I had to pay $250, but what're you going to do? I love my car. I'm just glad I lucked into it."

Others also found redemption after walking away from their cars. The night before near Tysons Corner, Celine Ma, 27, couldn't get anyone to stop and help as she tried to get her Toyota Corolla up a hill on Westpark Drive.

"It was like people had gone into survival mode. People were just jerks. They didn't care about anyone else," she said.

Then, Thursday morning, when she walked back to her car, she realized that the little island where she thought she had left it was actually smack in the middle of an intersection. While she was surprised and grateful that it hadn't been towed, it was now not only stuck in the snow, but the battery was dead.

For almost 15 minutes, she tried to wave down every passing car. A string of BMWs and Audis passed by, but the drivers wouldn't make eye contact, as though even a look would oblige them to help.

Finally, someone slowed down - a short man driving one of the oldest, most beaten-up cars she'd ever seen. He told her he had spent the night sleeping under the bridge, and all morning long while making his way home, he had been stopping to help people jump-start their cars.

"It made me think of that story about the Good Samaritan," said Ma. "It made me feel grateful for the world again, that there are people like him in it."

wanw@washpost.com

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