Winter returned to Washington in a miserable way yesterday, bringing unexpected doses of freezing rain, sleet and snow that made driving awful, caused some people to abandon their cars in the middle of evening rush hour traffic and forced National Airport to shut down.
Accumulations of snow--on top of ice, in many places--promised to make driving to work this morning an adventure, despite the efforts of road crews who worked through the night salting, sanding and scraping. Hazardous road conditions were reported throughout the area and motorists were urged to drive with caution.
More than 100 flights were canceled at National after it closed at 6:30 p.m. Workers trying to clear the runway found that ice formed faster than they could clean it off.
Keith Barnett, airport operations officer, said the slick conditions made use of the runway a treacherous proposition for takeoffs and landings. Barnett said the closing was not related to the Jan. 13 crash of an Air Florida jetliner taking off in a driving snowstorm. The Boeing 737 hit the 14th Street bridge and plunged into the Potomac River, killing 78 people. Investigators indicated icing of the plane's control surfaces may have contributed to the crash.
Flights to National were diverted to Dulles and Baltimore-Washington international airports, as well as to Boston and Philadelphia.
Unlike National, Dulles has parallel runways, and officials there were able to use one while the other was being cleared. Baltimore-Washington airport was hit by snow, but not sleet or ice, and workers were able to plow it away.
The trouble started late yesterday afternoon during a driving rain when temperatures dropped to freezing. Roadways, trees and powerlines quickly became coated with ice.
Area highway officials reported no major tie-ups on main arteries around the city. But traffic slowed to a crawl in many places; cars slid out of control, and scores of minor accidents were reported.
Varying amounts of snow fell in the region, with heaviest accumulations reported in the north and west. Officials in Maryland declared a snow emergency. Near Frederick, a tractor-trailer jackknifed on I-70, blocking the westbound lanes for a time. Another truck jackknifed in the southbound lanes of I-95 near Beltsville, snarling traffic but causing no serious injuries.
Up to four inches of snow had fallen in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley by midafternoon and schools were closed early.
In the close-in suburbs, the hardest-hit area appeared to be upper Montgomery County, where snow began to fall around 2 p.m. and up to four inches accumulated in the Damascus area.
The National Weather Service predicted temperatures rising to around 40 degrees today, with rain continuing intermittently.