Despite springlike temperatures yesterday, Washington's ice and snow would not go away, setting off monumental traffic jams, disrupting government and business and keeping the area in bondage to the weather yet another day.
For the first time since last Monday's crippling snowstorm, commuter traffic returned to near-normal volume. But much of it promptly became caught in one of the most horrendous areawide tie-ups in recent memory, especially in Virginia, with ice, fog, potholes and unremoved snow contributing to the general misery.
Commuters had countless horror stories to tell colleagues at work: four and a half hours from Manassas to downtown Washington, two hours and 20 minutes from Friendship Heights to downtown, cars backed up bumper-to-bumper on Interstate Rte. 66 from the Capital Beltway to beyond Fairfax City.
Buses slid sideways on early-morning ice, blocking roadways. Cars ran out of gas. Traffic was backed as much as 13 miles on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
In Arlington, passengers abandoned stranded buses by the hundreds along Lee Highway and walked down the highway between the lanes of motionless automobiles.
D.C. public schools, one of the few school systems in the area open yesterday, encountered no major problems but reported below-average attendance by pupils and teachers.
Pupils at Gage-Eckington Elementary School at 3rd and Elm streets NW applauded the nine teachers who showed up.
Though temperatures fell below freezing in some suburban areas early yesterday, creating a slick glaze on roads, the thermometer shot up to a balmy 56 degrees by mid-afternoon. Thick early morning fog cleared off, and a kindly sun combined with the warm temperatures to melt some of the mountains of snow still in the area.
Some motorists in outlying areas late Wednesday night were surprised to discover patches of ice forming on roadways amid dense fog, even though the air temperature was above freezing.
"This can happen in certain spots," said National Weather Service forecaster Charlie Archambault yesterday. "It doesn't happen often, but the ground is still so cold it re-freezes (road) surfaces from beneath while cooler air is also coming in from aloft."
National Weather Service forecasters said mild temperatures should continue throughout the weekend with occasional rain likely each day through Monday. But the forecasters said there is little likelihood today of flooding from the rain and melting snow.
What triggered the mammoth traffic tie-ups yesterday morning? Area police give a combination of factors:
Ice patches slowed drivers, caused accidents and jammed traffic, especially on bridge ramps.
Cars that ran out of gas or were otherwise disabled could not be removed from roadways hemmed in by walls of plowed snow, thus blocking the cars behind them.
Four- and six-lane commuter routes were narrowed to two and three lanes because of unplowed lanes, meaning less space than usual for the normal volume of traffic.
Cars in Virginia funneling into the five bridges across the Potomac River to Washington became backed up, creating a ripple effect on the George Washington Memorial Parkway, Lee Highway, Capital Beltway, Wilson Boulevard and other roads.
Massive potholes, especially on the Whitehurst Freeway, forced cars to go extremely slowly, backing up traffic behind them.
Heavy fog slowed traffic in outlying areas.
"Ice on road surfaces caused a lot of accidents," said Fairfax County Police Sgt. James Covel. "Once the accidents create a backup, it takes forever to clear 'em out."
In Washington, Transportation Department plows and tow trucks began the elaborate task of clearing snow from the curb lanes of seven major bus and commuter routes, dragging scores of cars from the snow, clearing it with the plows and the replacing the cars against the curbs.
By early last night, crews had cleared most inbound and outbound club lanes of 16th Street NW and Benning Road and H Street NE. Connecticut, Wisconsin and Georgia avenues NW and Martin Luther King Avenue SE were to be completed later in the night, officials said.
More than 150 D.C. Environmental Service Department workers began unplugging dozens of catch basins jammed with ice and debris at intersections so that the city's storm sewer system could drain off melting snow.
As road crews worked to restore the streets, Metrobus service also limped back toward normal operations.
Some 1,431 of 1,561 buses were dispatched yesterday morning, most of them on schedule, according to Metrobus operations director Thomas Trimmer.
"Not all of them arrived at their destinations on schedule," Trimmer said, "because it was really slick out there."
Nine bus operators -- all veterans at the wheel -- stopped their buses on Wilson Boulevard at Jefferson Street in Arlington and refused to go down a steep hill on the inbound lanes of Wilson Boulevard. A Metro supervisor went to the scene and backed their decision not to budge. They waited for two hours while the ice slowly melted. Many passengers got off the buses and pressed on toward Washington as best they could.
Metro's subway system, by contrast, ran smoothly yesterday, according to officials, after missing three days of scheduled operations.
Nicholas J. Roll, Metro's assistant general manager for transit services, told the Metro board yesterday that "we need more (snow removal) equipment" to prevent another breakdown in service. He said that he did not know what specifically is required but that a staff study would make recommendations in the future.
Roll said there were also problems in clearing snow from subway station escalators and promised another report on whether drains are adequate to carry away melting snow.
While many snow removal crews were diverted to cleaning up major commuter routes in the city yesterday, residents in some corners of the District complained that their side streets still have not been plowed.
"I've been calling and calling and calling, and they promise you and promise you and promise you, but still no results," said Charles Bolinger, at 52d and East Capitol streets SE, near the Prince George's County line.
"They ain't touched this street," said Henry Gaine, who lives in a fourunit apartment building on nearby 47th Street SE.
Seward Cross, acting deputy assistant director of the Transporation Department, said late yesterday the "vast bulk" of residential streets have now been plowed. He acknowledged that a few have been overlooked "for a variety of reasons" and that others are too narrow or have too many cars parked in them to permit plows through.