Area travel comes to a standstill

Vehicles spun out wherever people drove them. Traffic came to a dead stop on a 6-mile stretch of Interstate 95. Other major highways remained nearly deserted. Above-ground mass transit took the day off. Baltimore- Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport shut down to concentrate on plowing buried runways.

And conditions might not be much better as today dawns and Maryland continues to dig out from its Super Bowl of snow - a pasting that reached an estimated 28 inches at the airport by the time the snow stopped falling just before dusk. Temperatures overnight were expected to dip below 25 degrees - the point at which snow melted by salt treatments turns into treacherous ice.

Gov. Martin O'Malley said late Saturday afternoon that BWI is not expected to reopen for commercial flights until midday Monday at the earliest. He said the state of emergency declared Friday will continue through the weekend and urged Marylanders to continue to say home and off the icy roads.

"We're going to be fighting this battle all day trying to keep the main corridors open," he said.

For those who did venture out in their vehicles Saturday, there was trouble aplenty. Even though main roads were clear, many ramps were impassable. O'Malley said most of the stalled cars he saw during his travels around the state were on ramps.

On most major highways in Maryland, lanes were open and traffic was so light as to be almost nonexistent. But the horrendous exception was southbound I-95 between Arbutus and Columbia, where a double whammy of stalled vehicles and a jack-knifed tractor-trailer led to a monstrous traffic jam that began about 9 a.m. and persisted eight hours later. O'Malley said traffic was backed up about 6 miles from the site of the obstruction near Route 175.

Nathan Blake of Takoma Park was among those who spent their entire afternoon stuck in cars idling on I-95. Blake said in a phone interview from the highway at about 4:30 p.m. that he and his wife, Andrea, set out for home from Baltimore, where she had attended a conference, about 11:30 a.m. because they didn't want to pay for another night in a hotel room.

Just before noon, he said, he ran into the backup about a mile north of Route 100 in Howard County. Almost five hours later, they were still there - with no food and with water they didn't want to drink because of the absence of bathroom facilities.

"I'm hesitant to point the finger of blame at anyone but it does seem it could have been handled better," he said. At 5:25 p.m., highway crews finally cleared the way for him to make a U-turn and return to I-195.

State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen said the backup originally started about 9 a.m. when nine vehicles, including three tractor-trailers, became stuck in the snow. After about two hours of a resulting backup, he said, those vehicles were cleared, but shortly after traffic began flowing another tractor-trailer jack-knifed and a second became disabled behind it.

State officials struggled to keep a single lane of the interstate open through the heart of the storm. Convoys of trucks had so much snow to move that they could not spread across all lanes, and some of the plowed snow collapsed back onto the cleared lanes, officials said.

Bob Harsche, who was headed to Virginia from Philadelphia with a truckload of Wonder Bread, said it was the worst traffic he has encountered in 38 years.

Harsche, 58, got stuck in the backup about eight miles south of Baltimore about noon. By 6 p.m., he had moved a half-mile. He passed the time by reading a spy novel, listening to the radio and even taking a nap. "I think other drivers were jealous of me after seeing my pillow against the window," Harsche said.

"It was a miserable experience," said John Martin, stuck for hours while traveling between Massachusetts and Miami.

O'Malley announced shortly before 5 p.m. that the trucks had finally been hauled away, but as dusk fell, the interstate remained a parking lot. Traffic at the front of the queue finally began flowing a half-hour later, but was halted to clear a tractor-trailer that had been abandoned..

BWI remained closed tight - with no flights coming in or out but one.

Maryland Aviation Administration chief executive Paul J. Wiedefeld said a twin-engine Beechcraft plane landed during the peak of the snowstorm at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. He said the "mini-cargo" run was delivering canceled checks for bank processing.

Wiedefeld said he did not know where the flight originated and did not identify the pilot. The airport said there were no problems with the landing.

"It was uneventful except for him. He was a little nervous," he said.

Late Saturday, Southwest Airlines, the airport's largest carrier, announced it would not resume flights until midday Monday. O'Malley announced a little later that the airport would be closed until then.

Most mass-transit service was suspended in Maryland as the snow overwhelmed roads and rails.

According to Maryland Transit Administrator Ralign Wells, the only service moving in Maryland on Saturday was the part of Baltimore's Metro that runs underground from Mondawmin Mall to Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Local bus service was suspended early Saturday because many roads were impassable. Light rail and the aboveground portion of the subway did not go into service because the "snow trains" the MTA had out at night could not clear the rails fast enough. In Washington, the Metro was also running only to underground stations, according to Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley.

Even Mobility service for the disabled was suspended. People with medical emergencies had to rely on 911 service.

MTA announced late Saturday that there will be limited light rail service today from North Avenue to Camden Yards, but none south of Camden Yards or on the BWI and Penn Station spurs.

On the Metro, aboveground service to Owings Mills, Milford Mill and Rogers Avenue is expected to reopen today, but parking will be limited, the MTA said. Wells said bus service would resume only on primary roads and will be on a modified schedule. Mobility service was expected to be available for medical appointments only.

Wells said the prospects for Monday look much better. He said the MTA is waiting for a determination from the federal government on whether its offices will open before deciding whether to offer MARC service Monday. If the trains do run, they will be on a limited holiday schedule, he said.

The MTA was working closely with city officials to get key turnaround points plowed, Wells said. He said one of the MTA's big problems is that many of its buses are buried in snow.

Wells said the MTA's call center is open through the weekend. He said employees, including call center operators, mechanics and operators, have been brought in by four-wheel-drive vehicles from as far away as Pennsylvania.

The administrator paid tribute to the efforts of MTA workers, noting that they were working across union jurisdictional lines to perform necessary tasks.

The size of the storm made state officials confident that Maryland would receive federal assistance to cope with the costs of the clean-up. Richard Muth, director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said the state will apply for disaster assistance in about three weeks.

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