Wednesday turned into a traffic nightmare for Washington-
area commuters, with lane closures on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and other factors combining to bring hours-long gridlock across the region.
The logjam was rooted in a fatal crash about 11 a.m. in the Capital Beltway’s northbound lanes of Interstate 95. The driver of a tractor-trailer lost control and struck highway construction vehicles on the bridge.
Three workers in a bucket beneath the bridge became stranded after the tractor-trailer hit their work truck. They were rescued, but the tractor-trailer driver, who hasn’t been identified, died in the crash.
All lanes of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge — which carries more than 220,000 vehicles a day — were closed as thick, black smoke was visible for miles. Lanes began to reopen during the afternoon, although some northbound lanes remained closed well into the evening as crews cleared the fiery crash and inspected the bridge.
“It was a challenging day for a lot of folks,” said Taran L. Hutchinson, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Area Transportation Operations Coordination (MATOC), a program that coordinates with transportation agencies in the District, Virginia and Maryland.
Traffic experts said that even as some lanes on the Wilson Bridge reopened, delays stemmed from rubbernecking as passersby peered at the scene. Drivers seeking to avoid the bridge delays turned to the George Washington Memorial Parkway or Interstates 395 and 295, adding traffic to those roads.
Reagan National Airport reported “spillover congestion” from nearby roads, tweeting images of the traffic jam outside the terminal and warning of the “regional traffic issue.”
“If you are leaving the airport in a car, avoid going northbound. Traffic is not moving in the direction. . . . The fastest way to leave here is on a train,” the airport tweeted.
Transportation officials said an afternoon rally in downtown Washington and a Nationals home game against the Baltimore Orioles further added to the delays. Then came heavy rain during the evening rush that prompted severe thunderstorm warnings in the region.
Authorities said there were several reasons the bridge crash took hours to clear.
It happened on a major thoroughfare and involved multiple agencies helping in the rescue and cleanup effort. And because it involved two large trucks and rescuing people under the bridge — along with fire boats on the Potomac River — it wasn’t a typical crash.
A marine unit of the Prince George’s County Fire Department was patrolling along the river when officials said they heard a boom and saw an explosion on the bridge, according to Mark Brady, a spokesman for the fire department.
He said they rushed to help and rescued the workers trapped in a bucket. About 100 rescuers, including police, fire and hazmat crews, responded from several agencies.
“You had a crash on a bridge with trucks and having to lower people trapped underneath a bridge,” Hutchinson said. “The incident itself was complex.”
MATOC was conducting a 90-person training session in Alexandria at the time of the crash for several agencies. Many of its attendees had to leave to respond to the real-life crash scene.
A map by MATOC showed how Wednesday’s traffic looked compared to a normal Wednesday afternoon, with lots of red that indicated congested roads.
For driver Gary Maloney, it was a long, frustrating afternoon of trying to get around.
Maloney, a political consultant, said it was the worst traffic he had seen in nearly 40 years in the area. It took him almost an hour to get from Dupont Circle to 18th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW — a distance of less than a mile.
He described it as “just awful,” then gave up and headed to his Virginia office.
Maloney compared it to the well-known rough commute during an ice storm that hit the Washington region in January 2016. During that storm, less than an inch of snow fell, but it created chaos during the evening rush.
Kathy Clement said her normally 35-minute commute took more than six hours.
She left her job at Northern Virginia Community College’s Alexandria campus at 3:30 p.m., unaware of the traffic woes ahead of her, en route to her home off Richmond Highway. She sat in her Toyota Rav4 listening to country music and talking to friends as traffic crawled on Duke Street.
After using a half-tank of gas to move seven miles, she arrived home around 10 p.m., missing a scheduled bingo game with friends.
“Even in snow, I’ve never seen it this bad,” she said. “It was terrible.”
She expressed condolences for the person killed in the crash.
On Twitter, John Lisle, chief of external affairs for D.C. Water, wrote that Wednesday’s commute had similarities to an icy winter storm about 10 years ago that “caused havoc and shut down the Mixing Bowl ramps. Last night reminded me of that experience.”
Lauren Lemieux wrote on Twitter that she works at 12th and D streets in Southwest Washington and hadn’t seen traffic “outside my office as bad as it was when I left last night” in more than six years of working there.
On Wednesday at 3:30 p.m., the I-95 backup at the Wilson Bridge extended more than 12 miles into Virginia, with several miles-long backups elsewhere in the metro area.
Alexandria police suggested drivers park their vehicles and “take a breather.”
“Go get dinner, stretch your legs,” the department tweeted. “Don’t drive yourself mad in traffic you can’t control.”
Gradually, officials reopened lanes along the bridge as delays remained.
At 7:30 p.m., the Maryland State Highway Administration said the right lane on the main line of northbound I-95 on the bridge had reopened but the left lane was still closed.
Then at 10:30 p.m., it was finally over as all lanes were back open.