A view of the storm's impact on the region
As the snow piled up, emergency rescue crews around the region struggled to reach people, including women in labor, travelers trapped in a car under a live fallen power line on South Capitol Street, and one North Bethesda man who was having a heart attack.
Melvyn Newman, 73, was shoveling the driveway at 7:30 p.m. when he felt his chest tighten. He came back inside, pale and shaking, and his wife Linda Singer Newman called 911. Instead of an ambulance, which may not have made it up the road, an enormous fire truck arrived, said Singer Newman, who insisted on squeezing in with her husband.
What was normally a six- or seven-minute drive to Suburban Hospital took over half an hour. “We had a terrible time…There were cars everywhere, we couldn’t get around the cars and we were stuck,” she said, adding that Old Georgetown Road had not been plowed, so there was no room for cars to get out of the way.
“It was harrowing,” she said, describing how the driver of the fire truck honked his horn and eventually went up the road on the wrong side.
When they arrived a waiting cardiac team put a stent in Newman’s heart, which had a blocked aorta. “They told me that he had maybe fifteen minutes or he would have been finished,” Singer Newman said.
Newman, who was conscious during the ride, said, “I’ve done that drive a thousand times and it was a long ride, and it was more disconcerting because they had me move from the seat to the floor.”
Capt. Paul Starks, a Montgomery County Police spokesman, said the sleet storm came on suddenly late Wednesday afternoon, just as a lot drivers were trying to get home. Very quickly, there were hundreds of gridlocked roads across the county. Buses and trucks spun out, blocking two lanes or more.
Police commanders had not called in extra officers for overtime, based in part on the unpredictability of just how bad the conditions would be. “If the storm doesn’t occur, that’s a waste of finite fiscal resources,” Starks said.
He said that many officers who were working during the storm were held over after their shifts, and told to work additional hours.
As the roads clogged up, calls poured in from motorists stuck on roads, or stuck on the side of roads. “Through no fault of their own, some drivers aren’t experienced in driving in these conditions. It just doesn’t happen here very often,” Starks said.
The officers’ priority was to check on the safety of the stranded motorists, not to try to control traffic flow around them, Starks said. And where traffic was at its most gridlocked, he said, there was little the officers could do, and a good chance the officers wouldn’t have been seen in the dark, sleeting conditions.
“An officer directing traffic would not resolve the gridlocks, because the gridlocks were caused by the volume and conditions,” Starks said. “It wouldn’t have been a good use of manpower and it wouldn’t have been a good risk to the officer’s safety.”
-- Dan Morse
Ellen Hoff had plenty of time to study the problem. The Wednesday afternoon commute home from her office on East-West Highway in Bethesda to her home in Georgetown took four hours instead of its normal 30 minutes. One cause: Drivers in vehicles built to handle the conditions were messing it up for drivers in vehicles that weren't.
"Although you don't notice it much in good weather, there are a bunch of little hills in that part of the world," said Hoff, an executive with a telecommunications consulting company. As cars got stuck on the snowy road, other motorists would jump from their vehicles and push them up the incline. "We'd just about get somebody unstuck when an SUV would pull out of the cross road," she said. That would force the recently-freed vehicle to brake. "The person we just pushed out therefore lost all their momentum. Everybody had to get out and start pushing them up again very slowly."
Then there were the drivers who either accidentally or purposely misjudged how much room was in an intersection, blocking the thoroughfare and causing gridlock. It took Hoff 30 minutes to go the three blocks from her office near Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School to the left turn on Wisconsin Avenue. "The reason was everybody was trying to come north on Wisconsin and just drove into the intersection," she said. "And of course there wasn't room for all of them. They would block people on East-West Highway trying to turn left on Wisconsin who wouldn't have been in their way at all."
On Wednesday at least, the old adage seemed to be true: Washingtonians don't know how to drive in the snow.
"It was self-inflicted pain," Hoff said. "And a lot of it I think was highly avoidable. It was just people being either greedy or stupid about how to drive in the snow. If somebody's trying to get up a hill very slowly you don't dart in front of them and make them slam on the brakes. It's Basic Winter Driving 101."
Molly Sim, who works for Kajeet Inc., a company that offers cell phones for kids in Bethesda, typically takes back roads on her daily commute home to Alexandria. She tries to avoid the George Washington Parkway and the Beltway and winds her way down Little Falls Parkway to Massachusetts Avenue and eventually over the Chain Bridge Road. The commute typically takes her 50 minutes.
But in Wednesday’s rush hour storm, Sim wound up spending seven hours in her car, repeatedly checking her GPS for the best routes to avoid traffic, and finding herself stuck smack dab in the middle of it. The worst choke hold: Foxhall Road, where she spent more than three hours, inching along, and another two just trying to make it down the last icy hill to merge onto Canal Road.
She left her Bethesda office shortly after 5 p.m. She’d made it on Massachusetts Avenue as far as the traffic circle by American University in a little over an hour. Then she made her first big mistake, she said, choosing to turn onto Nebraska Avenue, then left onto Foxhall Road.
GPS showed that Foxhall looked clear. It was wrong.
“People were spinning out. There were cars that just weren’t going to make it,” she said.
She kept checking Google maps. She watched people bail, make U-turns, try to hopscotch in front of other cars and jump the long, long line of traffic. Most annoying, she said, were how people kept honking their horns, as if the cars stuck in front of them had any choice in the matter. “Foxhall was clearly not the way to go,” she said. “But once I was on that route, there was no place to bail. I was totally out of the Metro zone. What I should have done is checked into a hotel.”
By 9:10 p.m., she’d reached Foxhall and Reservoir Road. The traffic light was out. An hour later, she’d inched her way to MacArthur Boulevard. “That last hill down to Canal was a killer,” she said. “Cars were having to go down one by one and the road just couldn’t take that volume of traffic.”
By 11:50 p.m., she was on the Key Bridge. Then, once she crossed into Virginia, the traffic had eased, the roads were fairly clear, and she made it to her home in Alexandria about 12:15 a.m. “The last time I spent that long in the car, I drove to Connecticut,” she said.
An electrical fire at a Kensington substation Wednesday evening turn the night sky into day, according to area residents.
Mary Hanlon, who lives near the substation at St. Paul Street and Metropolitan Avenue, said it “was like Armageddon.”
Hanlon and her family were eating dinner around 7:20 p.m. at their home in the 3500 block of Dupont Avenue when they started seeing bright flashes in green, blue, and purple, surrounded by a haze. They then saw what they thought was a bolt of lightning, which did not disappear.
“The entire outdoors lit up as if it was daylight, for at least 20-30 seconds. My first thinking was an awful terrorist event had happened," Hanlon said. "But from the sounds I figured out that it must somehow be associated with the weather.”
Michael Maxwell, Pepco vice president of asset management, said the fire damaged a switch gear. “It’s similar to a switch on a circuit breaker panel in your house being damaged, but this was damage to a station.”
Maxwell said Pepco is still investigating the cause, though he believes it may have been the unique combination of lightning and the snow storm. While fires have happened in substations before, Maxwell said it’s not often that you see it happen at this magnitude.
About 12,000 customers are supplied by that substation and have been without power since Thursday evening, Maxwell said. The substation will take several weeks to repair, so Pepco hopes to transfer the customers to the other seven substations that surround it, Maxwell said.
Matt Griggs, a neighbor of Hanlon’s, was eating dinner in the 3300 block of University Boulevard when he saw “a pulsating light that didn’t go away.”
Both Hanlon and Griggs are still without power. Maxwell said getting power to all residents attached to the substation is a priority above finding out the cause of the fire.
Edwin Hollingsworth’s eyes are cloudy with age and his hearing diminished to the degree that words shouted inches from his ears can be hard to unscramble. But on a day many Washingtonians changed their scheduled to stay indoors, he stuck to what he does every morning: rode his bike along Glebe Road.
“I’ve been doing it all my life and ain’t going to stop now that I’m 87,” said Hollingsworth, who has lived in the Ballston area since before apartments cost $35 a month and newspapers sold for 10 cents a week.
He said he never considered not going out in the snow. After all, there were groceries to buy and birds to feed.
“Every morning I come and sit here with my birds. Every morning they meet me,” said Hollingsworth, standing near a Harris Teeter, watching as a flock of finches pecked at the breadcrumbs he had tossed them. “Normally, I sit on that bench right there,” he said, pointing at a bench hidden under the snow.
Instead, he leaned his slight frame against his bike – one of three that he owns – and watched until the birds scattered. Only then, did he begin the slow ride home, stopping every few feet to walk where the sidewalk had not yet been paved.
Posted by: responsiblepublic | January 28, 2011 8:29 AM | Report abuse
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