Four people were killed and dozens more were injured in vehicle wrecks across the Washington region early Saturday as winter’s first blast of precipitation covered the area in a sheet of ice, crippling roadways and grounding flights at local airports.
Though Maryland and Virginia transportation crews pre-treated highways and major roadways to thwart icing, officials said a steady stream of freezing rain fell longer than expected, outlasting the salt and other treatments applied to roads before and during the storm.
Stretches of the Beltway and Interstate 95 were closed for hours.
“After a while the salt becomes diluted,” said Charlie Gischlar, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation. “People travel too fast for the conditions, and once you lose control, that’s it.”
Gischlar said the weather also stayed cooler longer than expected, making conditions more challenging. Rather than freezing rain giving way to regular rain that would melt the ice, he said, “it matured into a full-fledged ice storm.”
Even pre-treating more than 5,000 miles of roadways and continuously salting, as Virginia did, couldn’t hold off dangerous conditions.
“When it comes to ice and when the temps are very, very low, the roads will refreeze really quickly,” said Jennifer McCord, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.
The most serious incident was in Baltimore, where 55 cars piled up on Interstate 95 after a tanker truck went off the highway and burst into flames early Saturday. Two people died and at least 12 others were transported to local hospitals, according to Baltimore fire officials.
A video of the scene posted by a bystander on Facebook showed a large tanker truck careen down the road, then spin onto its side and over the left-hand barrier of the highway overpass. The tanker caught fire as it fell, exploding into a giant plume of flames and smoke.
Officials said the tanker driver was killed, as well as another driver who was hit by debris.
In Northern Virginia, 23 vehicles piled up on the Beltway near mile marker 50 in Fairfax just after 5 a.m. A short time later, about a mile away, a man’s body was found on the highway shoulder. Authorities said it appeared the man was involved in the wreck and had walked away, though it was unclear how he died.
A fourth person was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer near the Bayview area of Baltimore at about 5 a.m. Police do not yet know why the person was not in a vehicle.
By the time the storm moved out of the region around lunch time, officials had reported hundreds of wrecks from Baltimore down through Northern Virginia. Dozens of cars from the tanker accident and pre-dawn pileup in Baltimore still had not been removed.
Meanwhile, airports scrambled to get passengers in the air — or, in some cases, back on the ground — after closing runways in the morning.
Dulles International Airport opened two runways by around 10 a.m. Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport was reporting lengthy delays through the morning. Ronald Reagan National Airport reported “fairly normal” operations but told passengers on social media to “expect some delays as planes line up to de-ice before takeoff.”
Those who weren’t stranded in traffic jams were stranded in the air. Through the miracle of in-flight WiFi, they kept track of the ice disruptions from above.
After Dulles Airport tweeted that frequent status updates would be posted online, David Ramadan, a former state House delegate in Virginia, responded, “Those of us circling above would appreciate direct updates.”
Ramadan was apparently trying to get home from Dubai. Low on fuel, his plane was diverted to Pittsburgh for a fill-up, he later tweeted. Back in the air, Ramadan noticed the airport tweet that operations were returning to normal.
“You better keep the runways open,” he replied. “We’re coming in!!”
Bus service closures left many without a way to work. Youth sports games were canceled. In the District, even a holiday cookie decorating event in Chevy Chase and a 5K “Ugly Sweater Run” were not spared.
But as morning gave way to afternoon, the worst was passed.
“Winter weather advisories were allowed to expire at noon in the local area,” the Capital Weather Gang reported. “Temperatures are now at or above freezing from the I-95 corridor and to the southeast.”
By midnight, the forecast called for temperatures in the 50s.