On Monday morning, John Hildenbrand, of Syracuse, and his coworker Safwan Aziz, of Binghamton, started their drive from Central New York to South Carolina.
At the same time, over 800 miles away, Jimmy Watcher and his partner Geoffrey Ameele and their new French bulldog set out to make the long drive from Georgia to their home in Fayetteville.
The four men expected normal drives on Interstate 95 and other roads, one vehicle headed south and the other headed north. None of the men were ready for what they encountered a few hours into the trips.
They — like hundreds of other motorists — were stuck on a 50-mile stretch of Interstate 95 in eastern Virginia after a severe winter storm hit the area. Many people were stranded overnight Monday into Tuesday, some for more than 25 hours on the snow and ice-covered highway.
As residents of Upstate New York, none of the men had anticipated that the ice and foot of snow that fell in Virginia would significantly affect their travel.
When they first encountered the bad weather Hildenbrand and Aziz were still making good progress.
“Watch out New Yorkers coming through,” Hildenbrand said he thought to himself.
The roads were not plowed or sufficiently salted and the weather began to cause major accidents and backups on I-95. Throughout the day and the following night, things only got worse.
The only thing that got all four men through the ordeal, they said, was having someone by their side.
Trip south: Instead of 12 hours, it took 36
John Hildenbrand, a welder from Syracuse, loves to mock his friend and coworker at The Andersons Inc., Safwan Aziz, for constantly overpacking the car whenever they were on a road trip.
By the time they had been stuck on I-95 for several hours, Hildenbrand was grateful for his friend’s passion for preparedness.
“You know what man, if I had been doing this drive by myself I’d probably be cold and hungry,” Hildenbrand said he told Aziz after hours in the car.
By the end of their journey, a drive that should have taken around 12 hours ended up taking 36 hours, Hildenbrand said.
When the pair first got on I-95 around 10 a.m. Monday the pace of traffic began to slow down, Hildenbrand said. They started to see cars traveling north that were covered in snow and they wondered how bad the conditions could be.
“This is not enough snow to cripple a whole road, let alone leave people on the side of the road for hours and hours on end,” Hildenbrand said.
Shortly after they got on I-95 they reached a complete gridlock. Luckily right before that, they had stopped for gas, so they were more prepared than most for the hours stuck on the highway.
Hildenbrand said their pickup truck would have been able to keep driving despite the conditions. The only problem was the hundreds of other cars and trucks that were not able to handle the snow and ice.
He said he believes the situation could have been avoided if the state transportation department was better equipped. But he said he doesn’t blame the state for not being prepared because these kinds of storms aren’t common in the region.
When the pair realized they were going to be trapped for a while, they decided they should share the wealth of supplies that Aziz packed. They were concerned that Virginia drivers might not have any supplies for winter weather.
“We knew that we were going to be okay,” Hildenbrand said. “We were just trying to make sure that people that didn’t know if they were going to be okay or not would be alright.”
They had cases of water, protein bars, crackers, party mix, coffee-making supplies. They even had a grill in the back.
That night they began handing out the supplies they could spare. They began knocking on people’s windows and offering food and water.
“Whatever we had we were handing out,” Hildenbrand said.
Hildenbrand said that, as a welder, he looks a little rough around the edges. Some people wouldn’t roll down their windows for him and Aziz.
They gave one couple with two small babies water and protein bars. While they didn’t have baby food to give them, they were happy they could help people anyway they could.
Over the course of the night, the two men barely slept for more than 45 minutes. Early Tuesday morning, Hildenbrand suggested they find a way to make coffee.
They pulled out their welder and powered up a Mr. Coffee maker to make pots of coffee for everyone.
They offered the coffee to as many people as they could. A driver near them came outside in a tee-shirt with a Pepsi can cut in half which they filled with coffee. Soon the other driver was cutting up more Pepsi cans and helping the welder hand out the coffee.
Hildenbrand and Aziz were taken aback by the comradery that formed among the motorists. Even though none of the drivers even exchanged names, they were all bonded by the harrowing experience.
Once the men finally got out of the gridlock and were traveling full speed on the highway, another driver that had been parked near them the whole time pulled up next to them and started pumping his fists in the air and giving them the thumbs up, he said.
Hildenbrand said he hopes that all the people they helped and the people who were moved by their story try to “pay it forward” and do something kind for someone else.
“In the end, we are all people,” He said. “If you put enough Americans in one bad situation then we are going to come together and find our way out of it.”
Trip north: 10 hours to go 18 miles in a detour that didn’t work
Jimmy Watcher and his partner Geoffrey Ameele had traveled to Florida to pick up their new French bulldog named Beauregard. They had stopped in Georgia and were planning to travel home Monday.
By 11 a.m., the CNY couple were eager to make the long drive from Savannah, Georgia to Fayetteville.
They had heard winter weather would be hitting Virginia but the storm was going to hit in the morning.
As a lifelong Upstate New York resident, Watcher thought the roads would be cleared by the time they would reach that part of their drive.
“The storm had already hit nine hours before we got there,” he said.
The couple made quick progress on I-95 for the first few hours, Watcher said. By the time it got dark, they were in Virginia.
All of a sudden their navigation system notified them to expect at least a five-hour delay on I-95, Watcher said.
When they reached the stretch of highway that was most affected by the storm, they were met with conditions that they had never seen.
“When we did see road, it was all shiny black ice,” Watcher said. “When we didn’t see the road, it was ice build up like I’ve never seen.”
They were shocked that the conditions could have been so bad hours after the storm. They expected salt trucks and plows to be all over the the highways as they are used to seeing in Central New York.
“We could have handled it here,” he said. “But there were no (plow) vehicles out there.”
The couple’s navigation told them to get off I-95 and try to avoid the delay by traveling on Rt. 1 toward Quantico, where the U.S. Marines base is located.
The conditions on Rt. 1 were just as bad if not worse, Watcher said. Traveling nine miles took five hours. At the end of the nine miles, they were met by a local sheriff’s deputy who told them they would have to turn around.
It took them another 5 hours to get back to 1-95, Watcher said.
Once they realized the severity of the conditions, panic began to set in. Watcher’s mind raced with concerns for his fellow motorists. What would happen to elderly drivers, people running out of gas and others with animals in the car, he wondered.
He looked back at the dog they had only just met and began to worry about how they were going to protect him.
They hadn’t prepared for a long delay. They only had a few bottles of water and some dried fruit. Watcher is diabetic and brought the snacks to keep his sugar up. They saved the water so they could give it to their dog.
The couple saw countless cars trying to cross the median of the highways, taking shelter under gas station hubs and broken down on the side of the road.
Luckily, the men had filled up their gas tank which prevented them from being completely stranded like many other motorists.
Once they were back on I-95 the pair hit gridlock, Watcher said.
“It looked like it was a huge parking lot,” he said, “on one of the busiest roads in the country.”
Some people were going car to car asking to borrow gas after they had broken down, Watcher said. Even if people could reach a gas station, most of the stations had no power and were not operational, he said. The storm had knocked out power to more than 400,000 customers in the mid-Atlantic and Southeast states.
They saw people walking on the highway toward hotels to find a safe place to sleep. People were completely abandoning their cars, he said. Watcher said there were hundreds of people stranded on the highway.
“I have been in a lot of natural disasters in my lifetime,” Watcher said. “This one was the worst as far as preparation for the storm.”
Although their supplies were thin, the couple’s main concern was their car battery. The two men had been playing Christmas songs on the radio in an attempt to keep their spirits up and pass the time. Unfortunately, it was wearing out the battery and they had to turn off the car.
Since they were headed to Upstate the men had winter clothes and could keep warm while the car was off. But they had to keep turning it back on to keep the dog as warm as they could.
In total, Watcher estimates that they spent nearly 12 hours in the car without moving. They didn’t sleep or eat that entire time.
Watcher was extremely grateful that he and his partner were together. Watcher struggles with driving at night and he said if his partner wasn’t there he would have had a complete breakdown.
After what felt like ages, they were able to follow some other drivers and make their way around Washington D.C. and into Maryland. They arrived there around 4 a.m. on Tuesday, 17 hours after they began the drive from Savannah. Their entire drive to Fayetteville should have taken around 14 hours.
In Maryland, they finally found some food and water but Watcher was too wired to sleep.
They decided to continue the drive home. After stopping for around an hour, the pair set out again. They finally arrived home around 1 p.m. Tuesday in Fayetteville, around 26 hours after they set out.
“We made it and we are here, thank God,” Watcher said. “You know the dog, we had only known him one day, but he did really well, we were worried about him the most.”
Staff writer Anne Hayes covers breaking news, crime and public safety. Have a tip, a story idea, a question or a comment? You can reach her at email@example.com.