Kathy Wade calls herself the forgotten commuter.
The public relations executive spent Wednesday night sleeping in her Mazda RX7, stranded for 15 hours in a massive traffic jam on snow-jammed I-295 near Oxon Hill in Maryland. She was cold. She was hungry. And she was furious that no authorities seemed to know or care about the highway's huddled masses.
"We felt like we were out there on our own," said 25-year-old Wade. "A lot of people didn't know where we were or what had happened to us."
She was one of an undetermined number of commuters -- some say hundreds -- who found themselves trapped in an enormous gridlock on southbound 295 near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, and spent the entire night either in their cars or crammed into nearby hotels. Yesterday several of them described a surreal scene of several miles of interstate along the eastern bank of the Potomac River littered with scores of disabled cars and trucks, most of which contained passengers.
It was a scene that officials in the District and Prince George's County apparently never saw.
Several of the motorists said they needed medical attention, and were unable to contact police or ambulances. A diabetic man sitting in traffic for hours needed his insulin, and another woman complained to fellow motorists about chest pains. A pregnant woman, who was "expecting her baby any day," got out of her car from time to time to stretch her legs, one motorist said.
An elderly man, traveling from Florida to New Jersey, clad in sandals, a T-shirt, light slacks and a windbreaker, left his car to get help for himself and his wife. The couple eventually found a room at a nearby motel where about 80 other stranded travelers jammed the lobby and stairwells.
Wade was less fortunate.
She left her job as a senior account executive at the public relations firm of Fleishman-Hillard at Dupont Circle about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday to head home to Fort Washington. It was clear sailing on District streets, but once she pulled onto southbound 295 it almost immediately became "a parking lot" and her nightmare began.
Wade desperately listened to the radio, hoping for some advice to the stranded motorists, but not a word was mentioned about the bottleneck on 295, Wade said.
"There was a feeling that we were detached from the rest of the world," said Donna Wade, Kathy's sister, who was also hopelessly trapped in traffic in a Ford Escort a few miles ahead. The sisters did not know they both were ensnarled in the huge bottleneck until they arrived at their home early yesterday morning.
"All that I had to amuse myself was my car owner's manual," said Kathy Wade. "I read it cover to cover. I also had a really good cookbook," she groaned. "I read the whole thing last night while I was starving."
Her sister, who waited in traffic for 13 hours, tended to more practical tasks. "I balanced my checkbook," said Donna Wade, a 21-year-old customer service representative at DRG Financial Corp. in Georgetown. "I cleaned trash out of my car. I wrote a six-page letter to a friend. I got really sick of my Billy Idol tape."
At the Susse Chalet motel at 6363 Oxon Hill Rd., front-desk clerk Sheri LaFlash suddenly was bombarded with weary motorists who had walked there from the highway, including the elderly New Jersey couple.
"This man was just purple," LaFlash said. "He was soaking wet. He was shivering. He could not feel his fingertips." LaFlash said the man's wife had on bedroom slippers and a thin sweater.
There was no room at the chalet when the elderly couple arrived, but LaFlash managed to squeeze them in.
"It was crazy," she said. "We had about 80 people sleeping in our hallways with blankets and pillows. We had them under the stairwell where the heater vent was. We took extra chairs from the first floor and put them in the lobby. We even had one gentleman sleeping on our luggage rack."
It was the same scene across the street at The Ramada Hotel of Oxon Hill, where the hotel's 194 rooms were filled and cars were spilling out of the parking lot. "People were everywhere -- lying in the lobby and the hallways," said Dave McCready, a supervisor at the Ramada. "We did what we could to let them stay out of the cold."
For those who were not fortunate enough to make it to a warm roadside hotel, a cramped car was home for the night. David L. Brodmann, of Waldorf, was in his for about 18 hours.
Brodmann, a mechanical engineer at the Naval Ordnance Station, arrived at Dulles Airport at 5 p.m. from a business trip to Los Angeles. Driving his car, which he had left at the airport, he headed toward the Wilson Bridge. "Traffic just came to a stop," Brodmann said. "I waited and waited."
About 4 a.m., a police officer came by Brodmann's Mitsubishi, and told him that motorists could still not drive over the bridge, but the first exit onto Rte. 1 had been opened.
Brodmann, who had still heard no radio reports about the area around 295 on the other side of the bridge, decided that the fastest way to get home would be to drive north on Rte. 1 until he reached I-395, then cut across the 14th Street bridge and down 295 to the Beltway.
Brodmann sat on the Maryland side of the river for another two hours until traffic began to slowly edge forward. Then, "just as we were getting started, I saw a truck somehow get stuck on the ramp in front of me. That took another four hours."
An exhausted Brodmann arrived home at 11 a.m. -- 18 hours after he flew into Dulles.
Gary Hayes, 39, a military officer from Woodbridge, set off for home from College Park earlier than Brodmann or the Wade sisters. He was nearing the Oxon Hill Road exit on I-95 south about 12:30 p.m. when he saw that a tractor-trailer had jackknifed and was blocking traffic. After sitting for more than two hours, he left his wife and and two children in the car and went in search of help.
While he was gone, several motorists seeking medical help tapped on the car window because Hayes' license plate indicates that he is a physician's assistant.
His wife Elizabeth listened to a woman's heart on a stethoscope in the car because she complained of chest pains. When Elizabeth Hayes contacted 911 through a trucker's citizens' band radio, she was told that authorities could not get an ambulance to them.
"I don't know what happened to the woman," Gary Hayes said. "What really concerns me is that we scanned the radio and listened to traffic reports, and never heard anything about the situation. There was a real problem out there that was life-threatening."
"Why were there no reports?" an angry Hayes asked. "Why didn't they get the truck removed for God knows how many hours? Why, when there was a medical emergency, could one ambulance not come out?"
Officials from the District and Maryland yesterday expressed bewilderment about how the motorists were overlooked. The District is responsible for the section of I-295 north of Prince George's County, but Maryland State Police in Forestville are responsible for I-295 and I-95 near Oxon Hill, where most of the traffic reportedly was gridlocked.
"I really haven't been able to assess the whole situation," said Maryland State Police Lt. Edward Brown, commander of the Forestville barracks.
At least Donna Wade made a new buddy -- a trucker from Pittsburgh whose CB radio handle is Pressure Cooker. They watched a television movie about Napoleon and Josephine in the warm cab of his truck and talked for hours. "I learned more about his life history in those four hours than I know about my boyfriend," Wade said with a chuckle.
Staff writer Fred Brown contributed to this report.