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How Virginia’s I-95 fiasco led to a 93-year-old driver’s 39-hour odyssey

James Murphy got trapped on an icy Interstate 95 and then got lost. A radio reporter, travel planner, police officer and hotel workers helped him on his way.

James Murphy, a retired orthodontist from Albany, N.Y., ended up on a 39-hour odyssey after hitting overnight backups on Virginia’s Interstate 95 following Monday’s snowstorm. Murphy, 93, said it would have taken longer if not for the strangers who helped him find his way. (Kathleen Murphy)
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At 93, James Murphy usually takes the Amtrak auto train to Florida to escape the Upstate New York winter. But this year, the retired orthodontist headed down Interstate 95 — and into a 39-hour odyssey through Virginia after getting ensnared, alone, in a snowstorm-induced traffic meltdown and lost on backcountry roads with a dwindling gas supply and dying cellphone battery.

Murphy left Albany, N.Y., about 8:30 a.m. Monday. He didn’t get to sleep again — or eat another meal following a brief Monday lunch break — until almost 11 p.m. Tuesday.

Murphy and his daughter, Kathleen Murphy, who frantically helped by phone from afar, said the two-day trek would have dragged on even longer if not for the extraordinary kindness of seven women he’d never met — a WTOP radio traffic reporter, a AAA traveler adviser, a Warrenton, Va., police officer and four workers at a Fauquier County hotel where he finally ended up.

“If not for a half-dozen people who went above and beyond,” Kathleen said Wednesday, “he’d probably still be sleeping in his car.”

I-95 reopens in Virginia after snowstorm forced closure that stranded hundreds of motorists

After a brief lunch stopover with his daughter in Manhattan, Murphy headed south around 2 p.m. with a couple of Diet Cokes, a big chocolate chip cookie and a small container of peanuts. Kathleen wasn’t thrilled about her father driving solo to Naples, Fla. He’s relatively robust, she said, but has a pacemaker and bad knees.

“He’s 93,” she said, “but good Lord, we can’t stop him.”

While heading through Northern Virginia on I-95 in the early evening, her father later recounted, he suddenly hit a wall of traffic that would eventually stretch for miles.

He wouldn’t budge for another 17 hours.

“There was nowhere to go,” he said. “All I could do was sit there and try to stay warm.”

He passed the time singing along to Tony Bennett’s greatest hits and a collection of Broadway show tunes, including “Hello, Dolly” and “Oklahoma.” Expecting traffic to move again any minute, he fought to stay awake. As the night wore on and temperatures dropped into the teens, he kept his Lincoln sedan running intermittently for heat, then would turn it off to save gas.

Was he ever bored? Tired? Hungry?

“Yes,” he said. “But there’s nothing you can do about it, so you just put up with it.”

In all the hours that she checked in by phone, Kathleen said, “he never complained, not once.”

Back in New York, Kathleen was beside herself. Her father had no car charger for his cellphone, and he lacked the tech savvy to allow her to track his location. Neither of them knew the area, and her father didn’t have GPS or a map. He told her he didn’t know where he was. The last exit he remembered was Manassas, but he couldn’t see any overhead signs or mile markers.

“I was very, very worried,” Kathleen said. “My dad is a very strong, smart and stable guy, but it was alarming for me. He’s 93. He’s my person in the world.”

Calls grow for examination of how Virginia handled a snowstorm that paralyzed I-95

Kathleen spent a sleepless night searching news sites and scouring Twitter while listening to WTOP traffic updates on her phone. She heard about the dozens of collisions and jackknifed tractor-trailers on the icy interstate. But no one seemed to know how, or when, traffic would move again.

With her father still stuck early Tuesday morning, Kathleen emailed the radio station’s traffic tip line. She was surprised when traffic reporter Mary DePompa wrote back, saying she wanted to help.

DePompa said later it was the worst meltdown she’d seen in 20 years of traffic reporting.

Calls and emails flooded in from stranded motorists: A woman worried that her diabetic husband hadn’t eaten in hours. A couple was trapped with their infant. A young woman was headed back to college in North Carolina, scared after a night alone.

“We began to feel like a crisis help line,” DePompa said. Unable to tell motorists when the standstill would end, she said, “I just let people talk. … It was awful.”

When Kathleen’s email said her father was 93 and stranded in the cold alone, “I thought, ‘I’ve got to help her,’” DePompa said. “Put yourself in her shoes. Could you imagine if that was your dad?”

DePompa suggested Kathleen direct her father to a gas station or church for assistance after he got off the highway. She tried to help determine his exact location and plot routes around the mess.

Around 9:30 a.m., Kathleen said, her father told her he was being diverted off I-95 to adjacent Route 1, which was at a standstill. She tried to find him a nearby hotel so he could sleep, but they were booked. Worried he might end up spending a second night in his car, she called AAA, where her father is a member.

Timeline: How a snowstorm brought I-95 to a standstill for 48 miles

Angela Stott, branch manager at Murphy’s home AAA office in Albany, said she understood the frantic tone in Kathleen’s voice.

“The first thing I thought of was what if this was my father,” Stott said.

Stott’s colleague eventually found a hotel room at a conference center in Warrenton, Va., while Stott studied mapping software for the best route.

About five hours later, while Kathleen was trying to talk her lost father through the dark, using Stott’s directions and maps on her home computer, Murphy cut off Warrenton police officer Maribeth Howser. He’d crossed her path, they both later agreed, while making a right turn at a light from the middle lane. Howser said she pulled him over after he then stopped suddenly in the middle of the road.

Murphy was on the phone with Kathleen, Howser said, and “just seemed done.” He said he’d been stuck on I-95 “forever” and was trying to reach his hotel.

Howser said department policy required that she issue him a warning for the illegal turn. She also gave him a slip of paper from her patrol notebook with written instructions to the hotel that she’d found on Google maps. He reminded her of her grandfather, who is also from Albany.

“My heart went out to him,” Howser said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re 93 or 25. It’s terrible to be in your car for so long with no resources.”

But the night wasn’t over. An hour or so later, as Kathleen talked to her father and Shanice Thomas at the front desk of the Airlie Hotel, they all realized he was hopelessly lost. So another hotel staffer, Kathy Turzi, got in her car to find him and have him follow her back to the hotel.

On Wednesday morning, after Murphy had a good night’s sleep, hotel staffers Pam Nichols and Marilyn Haight helped him on his way, with Nichols leading him back to Route 17. Though I-95 had reopened Tuesday evening, he would avoid it and follow a slightly longer route mapped out by Stott.

By Wednesday afternoon, he was nearing Charlotte. Traffic had slowed to a crawl again, but he didn’t seem to mind. He arrived at his destination Thursday evening.

“The weather is nice here,” he said while in North Carolina. “I’m doing fine.”