The citizens of Washington survived one of the region's heaviest rush hour snowstorms in recent memory, and yesterday they told grand tales of comedy and woe -- of abandoned cars, 10-hour commutes, acts of kindness and some displays of ineptitude and stupidity.
Snow had become more than an occasional meteorological phenomenon. It was a subject for philosophy.
"We simply allow too much liberty to cars. They're our shrines, and they're selfish," said Charles Drake-Long, a cancer researcher, as he recounted his 10-hour trip from his Bethesda office to his home in Georgetown during Monday night's snowfall.
For some commuters, there were mishaps, even catastrophes of sorts. The record for patience under duress may well have been set by one young woman who had done her marketing at a downtown Washington Safeway. She spent 8 hours on a D-2 Metrobus, carefully safeguarding her two packed shopping bags of groceries as the crowded passengers jostled, talked and coped.
Through it all, the woman kept trying to rearrange the frozen purchases so they wouldn't sweat and disintegrate the bag. At 11:30 p.m. Monday, as the woman lifted the bags' handles to get off the bus at 40th and Benton streets NW, the wet bottoms of the bags gave way and groceries spilled across the floor.
Yesterday's tales of the snowstorm were kaleidoscopic: A man in a jogging suit selling shots of Hennessey brandy to stranded commuters on K Street for $2 each; Southeast Washington teen-agers helping to push mired autos; Georgetown University students selling beer to motorists on Key Bridge at 50 cents a pop; skiers, including one who was carrying a brief case, whizzing past stalled motorists; a young woman on M Street NW holding a sign that said, "Fifty cents for bathroom... 50 cents for a phone call to let your loved ones know you're safe."
Some never made it home Monday evening. One real estate salesman who lives in Fairfax County spent the night at a Holiday Inn on Wisconsin Avenue NW. "I was showing a woman a house and I had to bring her back to the Holiday Inn here," he said yesterday morning, as he explained how he got stranded. His car ride to the hotel had taken about 5 1/2 hours, he said.
Others never got to work yesterday morning. On a Falls Church road, Robert Hardy, a federal employe driving a car without snow tires, found himself stuck in the snow yesterday. Even a push from four friends did not get his car unstuck.
"I'm going to walk back to the gas station, get pulled clear -- and then I'm going home and get in the bathtub," he blurted out at 7:30 yesterday morning. "It took me three hours to get home last night."
Monday night's snowfall was also a matter of measurement and analysis. Weather officials at National Airport calculated that the storm had quickly dumped 5.6 inches of snow on Washington. The same amount of snow -- to the decimal point -- had fallen here on Feb. 7.The two February snowfalls, weather officials said, were the heaviest in the Washington area since a storm in December 1973 dropped 10.2 inches of snow.
This month's storms also made this the snowiest February since 1972. A total of 11.6 inches of snow has fallen here so far this month, weather officials said. In the entire month of February 1972, they said, the snowfall amounted to 14.4 inches. Over the years, the average February snowfall here has been just 4.9 inches.
To add to these statistical tales, government and private weather forecasters predicted yesterday that additional flurries and a snowfall would strike the Washington area this afternoon and evening.
The National Weather Service forecast light snow this afternoon and evening, and said the snow may become mixed with sleet and freezing rain by Thursday morning. Accu-Weather Inc., a private Pennsylvania-based forecasting service employed by several Washington-area governments, also predicted snow flurries this afternoon and early evening, with heavier snow tonight, possibly accumulating to 1 to 3 inches. Forecasters for both agencies said today's anticipated snowfall would be considerably slighter than Monday's storm.
For hundreds of thousands of youngsters, yesterday was another refreshing holiday, as schools throughout the Washington area were closed because of snow-clogged roads and sidewalks. D.C. school Superintendent Vincent E. Reed, who had set off a controversy last week by announcing a last-minute decision to shut city schools, called off classes shortly after 5 a.m. yesterday, noting that sidewalks were 7 or more inches deep in snow.
"We felt it created hazardous conditions for students, particularly the smaller [ones]," Reed said.
Many students greeted the extra day off on sleds. "Glad to be out of school? Who wouldn't be?" said Joey Furth, 9, as he took to his sled on a Fairfax City hillside, along with a group of youngsters.
School officials in the District of Columbia and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs said they would not announce whether schools will be open today until early this morning.
City transportation officials said the snow and the swiftness with which it fell were largely to blame for the extraordinary traffic snarl that beset the Washington area from Monday's afternoon rush hour until nearly midnight. "That's the whole story. It just snowed too fast," said Gary Wendt, traffic operations chief for the D.C. Department of Transportation.
Although the District government had its full force of 300 snowplows on the streets by midafternoon Monday, when the heaviest fall began the plows were swiftly overwhelmed by the elements and quickly got ensnarled in the rush-hour traffic jams they had set out to prevent, Wendt and other transportation officials said.
With only a few D.C. policemen assigned to direct traffic during the storm, many motorists took matters into their own hands. At P and 21st streets NW, stalled drivers were startled to see a woman wearing evening clothes get out of her husband's car and began directing traffic.
"Altogether, there were three of us doing it," said Jayne Ikard, a freelance writer, "and it worked." When a policeman eventually showed up, Ikard said, "he had the nerve to ask me if a car stuck in the snow was mine. When I told him it wasn't, he just walked off."
Senior D.C. police officials said yesterday that few policemen were detailed to directing traffic during Monday's snowfall partly because there had been little advance warning of the severity of the storm and partly because several hundred extra officers already had been tied up patrolling a continuing farm-price protest by members of the American Agriculture Movement.
"We would have had to shut down scout cars and then we would not have the capability to respond to (crime and other emergency) service calls," said D.C. police spokesman Lt. Larry Soulsby.
The farm protesters also caused a minor traffic snarl yesterday as more than 400 demonstrators marched through the snow from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. The procession delayed traffic on Independence and Constitution avenues.
For more than a week, the farmers have been demonstrating here to demand higher agricultural prices for their products. Yesterday's march, in which the demonstrators wore prisoner-of-war emblems, was meant to protest police barricades that have blockaded the farmers' tractors and other vehicles inside the Mall since last week.
Hundreds of cars were abandoned Monday night by area motorists, some of whom left 283 cars strewn about District of Columbia streets. City officials sad a private firm employed by the city government towed the 283 abandoned cars to nearby parking spaces and ticketed them for various traffic infractions.
"I was a little disturbed at what happened," said John Brophy, who heads the city's parking and enforcement bureau. "A lot of these cars didn't have any chains or snow tires or anything. An awful lot of them ran out of gas. People should just check their gas gauges," he said.
City officials, nevertheless, expressed a moderately lenient attitude toward drivers whose cars were towed and ticketed, noting that none of the abandoned cars had been impounded. Impoundment would carry a $50 penalty.
"We're going to adopt a lenient attitude, but there's nothing automatic about it," said Frank P. Miller, chief of the law enforcement section of the corporation counsel's office.
Yesterday's tales of Monday's snowstorm led again and again to reminiscenses about earlier snowstorms and traffic tie-ups -- some perhaps more severe, others less devastating, all unique in some ways.
"The closest storm I can remember like this was the one we had on the eve of the Kennedy inaugural in 1961," said Thomas S. Trimmer, general superintendent of bus operations for the Metro transit system, whose bus fleet was among those severely delayed by Monday's snowfall.
Others said Monday's rush-hour snowstorm may have been the biggest in some respects since a week of snow blanketed and paralyzed the area in 1966. About 23 inches of snow buried the area during that week.