It could have been The Great Ice Storm of 1980, but it was over by noon.
It began crystal and quiet, a freezing rain throughout the Washington area that thinly coated sidewalks and streets, bicylcles on porches and bonebare limbs of the withered winter trees that rocked quietly in the early morning wind.
But the serenity of the predawn hours broke quickly with the first scraping and scratching on auto windshields around Washington. Then came rush hour, which lasted all morning, leaving motorists cursing, hundreds of fenders being dented and the Potomac River bridges serving as impromptu parking lots.
Though salt trucks had rumbled through the streets as early as 3 a.m., depositing 1,300 tons of abrasives in the District alone, by first light traffic on most of the area's highways was snarled. Metrobus and subway operations began an hour late as Metro employes failed to get to work on time.
Many commuters abandoned their cars and instead skidded and skated down hills on foot and on rump, holding umbrellas in one hand and companions' coat sleeves for balance in the other. Inevitably, they fell down.
Area schools opened late or not at all. Airline flights were delayed as the area's three airports closed. Even President Carter's Christmas flight to Plains, Ga., was delayed for two hours.
But by afternoon, temperatures had climbed into the 40s, and the ice was gone. Forecasters are predicting rain this morning, becoming windy and colder during the afternoon and evening. Rain may change tto light snow or flurries before ending. Afternoon temperatures are expected to rise into the mid 40s, with lows ranging from 14 to 20 tonight. The forecast for Christmas Day calls for windy weather, mostly sunny skies and highs ranging from 22 to 26.
Yesterday's storm was not unusual for this time of year, according to the National Weather Service. Reaching Washington between 2 and 3 a.m., where the overnight low was 27 at National Airport, the rain poured from the high-altitude clouds and was frozen when it fell into the layer of sub-freezing temperatures at the earth's surface.
The Washington storm, part of a front that extended from Georgia to New England, arrived at "the worst possible time for unexpected precipitation," said National Weather Service meteorologist Harold Hess, "because it happens after everyone has gone to bed, and they don't hear about it until they wake up."
Whatever the explanation, one thing was clear. No one was getting anywhere fast yesterday morning.
"The problem out there," said WMAL radio and WDVM-TV weatherman Gordon Barnes, "is not so much the weather as the jerks on the road."
Many suburban commuter routes and several in the District, including all of the Potomac River bridges except Memorial, were shut down in the early rush hours before 8 a.m. Police reported hundreds of accidents, although there were no fatalities in the metropolitan area.
In Prince George's County, police reported 74 accidents involving major property damage or injuries between 4 and 8 a.m. District police reported at least 60.
In Montgomery County, where accidents closed the eastbound lanes of the Capital Beltway near River Road and a jackknifed truck tied up traffic on Interstate Rte. 270, a few police officers had additional problems -- towing their own cruisers out of trouble.
The District had its own woes, not only with two dozen police cruisers being involved in accidents, but also with a fire truck.
According to one firefighter at southwest Washington's Engine Co. 13, a firewagon responded to a car accident on the Case Memorial Bridge near the Southwest Freeway at about 4:30 a.m. Seconds after it arrived, it was hit by another car. A police car stopped at the scene and summoned a tow truck. When the tow truck arrived, it skidded out of control and demolished the police car. No one was injured.
One city salting truck in northwest Washington had its own difficulties, stalling and then sliding backward on block-long Emery Place near Ft. Reno Park. The two-man crew and a couple of residents frantically threw handfuls of sand in the path of the truck, stopping it less than a foot from a parked car whose owner stood on the curb letting out an occassional shriek and holding her eyes until the crisis passed. l
Metro also had its problems, the most serious involving the bus system. A total of 290 of Metro's 1,600 buses missed their morning dispatches because of a shortage of bus drivers. Many other buses started late, then were delayed en route by accidents and slick streets.
Most hard-hit by the bus shortage were people living in the Shirley Highway corridor in Virginia and the Eorgia Avenue corridor in the District and Maryland.
Because of bus shortages, many buses filled up early on their routes, forcing drivers to leave at the curb people who had been waiting as long as an hour. It took more than 30 minutes, for example, for a downtown-bound bus to arrive at Alexandria's main intersection, King and Washington streets, at 9 a.m. Buses normally pass there about every five minutes.
Because of worker shortages, the subway system was unable to open as normal at 6 a.m. By 7:04, when the rush hour usually begins in earnest, the entire system was open, although trains ran less frequently than usual, and some stations were without attendants until about 8 a.m. No equipment problems were reported caused by the icing.
By late morning, most roads were reported open, and traffic had cleared up considerably, although Virginia state police said traffic was still moving at a crawl in the northbound lanes of Interstate Rte. 95 at 11:30. "The rush hour has arrived -- three hours late," said one state trooper. By the evening rush hour, U.S. Park Police reported they had closed five icy streets in Rock Creek Park.
All suburban schools closed -- except Alexandria's which dismissed for vacation last week -- and students found themselves with the mixed blessing of missing the last day of school and accompanying parties before holiday vacations.
Ted Wurfel, 13, a ninth grader at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, set out before 7 a.m., carrying four liters of Coke and a couple dozen chocolate chip cookies that he had made himself for parties in his French and geometry classes. He said he fell repeatedly under his burden as he tried to make his way to school, only to arrive at 7:25 and discover that classes had been canceled.
"I was pretty glad until I got home and found out I'd have to babysit," he said. Wurfel ended up having his own Christmas party with his friend Eric Rosenquist, playing "Dungeons and Dragons" and eating the refreshments. By 11:30 a.m., the two had polished off two liters of Coke and 36 cookies.
In the District, where schools were open but liberal leave policies for all city employes were in effect, students showed up in greater numbers than teachers. When only a handful of John Eaton Elementary's teachers appeared, principal Patricia Greer sent her students home.
At the Calvert Street entrance to Rock Creek Parkway, Dixie Anne Miller's pink Fiat Spyder was stalled. The windows were fogging up, and the drivers behind her were angry. She slammed a cashmere-gloved fist into the steering wheel and began to cry.
"I never should have left Florida," said Miller, who moved to Washington only three weeks ago. Behind her, and angry communter leaped out of his car and strode forward to investigate.
"Listen, b----, I want to know why the hell. . . ."
Miller got out of her car, revealing at least three feet of very yellow hair falling around a fragile, well-shaped figure.
"I want to know why the hell no one's giving you any help," the formerly angry motorist said.
In Rosslyn, accountant Randolph Barker bemoaned "the typical reaction of Southerners to a little bit of ice," giving a lengthy recollection off his boyhood in the northern wilderness of Albany, N.Y.
Satisfied, he nodded his head and strode off triumphantly.
Twenty paces later, in front of a crowd of commuters at the Metro station, Barker also went down, legs akimbo on the cold cement, his briefcase to his left and umbrella to his right.