Muttering faces, shaking heads, car windows fogged by stale breath. Young men with defeated looks, young women in need of a bathroom. These were the images of frustration -- with a capital F -- that necklaced Interstate 95 yesterday, inside cars and trucks either frozen on the concrete ribbon or inching forward like a long, metallic glacier.
There were lonely drivers in BMWs chatting endlessly on cell phones as if they were dictating their wills. There were soccer moms in SUVs juggling street maps and throwing murderous glares at their impatient children.
There were drivers who had parked on the side of the highway because their cars had broken down. And there were those who pulled over because their bodies had broken down.
"We've been here for three hours," Anthony Lucas, 32, said, rubbing his sleep-deprived eyes in his gray Buick, parked on the side of southbound I-95. "I was just getting some sleep."
His wife, Tiffany, sat next to him. Their three kids -- ages 4, 6, 14 -- were in the back. They left their home in Brooklyn late Tuesday night, and by now they should have been in North Carolina, where 50 relatives were waiting for them to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Instead, it's 8:30 a.m., and they are sitting on the edge of I-95 south, sleeping and probably dreaming of better places. Ahead of them is the charred, gray carcass of the tanker truck that disrupted their Thanksgiving. Authorities had to partly close lanes on a stretch of the interstate just north of I-495 for eight hours after the truck caught fire.
It could have been worse. The truck driver's fast action in getting the vehicle off the road, the pre-rush hour time of the fire, and the swift repaving of the road made the snarls less frustrating than they might have been.
But while the lanes were closed, cars were filled with muttering faces and shaking heads.
The people inside all seemed to be saying, "Could there be a secret way off the highway? Could we all become Harry Potter, pop through that wall on that bridge, and hop onto the Hogwarts Express to work or to see our families for Thanksgiving?"
Some drivers tried the next best thing. They stopped Russell Lowery, a truck driver for SuperFresh food, whose truck had broken down while idling, near where Powder Mill Road passes over I-95.
A truck driver, they thought, surely must know the way out.
"Everyone is asking me how to get where they're going," said Lowery, a thin-bearded man who seemed bewildered by all the requests. "I don't even know my own escape route. Everywhere you go, it's going to be jammed."
That included gas stations and fast-food restaurants flanking I-95, where parking lots soon filled up with vehicles with out-of-state license plates. Strangers exchanged advice on alternative routes, bonding over their collective misery. Others had a more immediate priority:
"I had to go to the bathroom quite badly," said Skip McPherson, 51, a painting contractor from Gladstone, N.J., who made a pit stop at a McDonald's.
He was traveling with his wife, Cheryl, their Shetland sheepdog, a yellow Lab and four cats. They left their house at 2:45 a.m. yesterday to visit his mother in Reedville, Va. They had seen signs flashing along the highway, warning of the congestion.
"But no one was paying attention," Skip McPherson said.
They did pay attention when other drivers, succumbing to pent-up frustration, began passing on the left and right shoulders in a desperate, if futile, attempt to make progress.
"People were driving like animals," Cheryl McPherson said. "It was too unsafe."
After a mere hour in the snarled traffic, Jeffrey Warley was ready to beat himself up for not leaving the Bronx earlier yesterday. He left at 3 a.m.
Six hours later, he sat in the McDonald's with his brother and two children -- not at his grandmother's house in South Carolina -- wishing they had left at an even more ungodly hour.
"I'm really kicking myself," said Warley, 39, who works for Nielsen Media Research. "I was saying we should leave at one in the morning, but we wanted to get some more rest."
The traffic was so thick it was enough to make Carlos Rodriguez, a truck driver from Mexico, wonder whether he had mistakenly driven into a Third World country.
"This is the United States," he muttered, staring into the line of cars that stretched toward the horizon. "This should have been cleared by now."
His day will be long, he said. The traffic had delayed his shipment of appliances to stores across Prince George's County by at least two hours.
The traffic was so diabolical that it broke Howard Winfield's track record at work. Normally it takes him less than hour to drive from Baltimore to his job in the District. He leaves at 6 a.m. and is always the first to arrive at work. Not yesterday.
"It took me an hour to pass one exit," he said, shaking his head. "This is crazy."
At a gas station on Powder Mill Road, Anton Davila and Christina Colby, both 26, were the latest casualties of a morning that defied the spirit of this holiday weekend.
They had left New Britain, Conn., about 1 a.m. yesterday, and were on their way to Florida for Thanksgiving to visit Colby's brother. Then they hit the traffic. Then their Range Rover overheated.
"It's been a nightmare," Davila said at the gas station. "Now we're waiting for a tow truck."
Their other worry sat inside their trunk: pies and cookies to share with their relatives this weekend.
"I don't know how long it's going to keep," Colby said. "When we get there, if we ever do, we'll let everyone else try the pie first and then we'll take a piece."
Staff writer William Wan contributed to this report.