Two welders, who were among hundreds of drivers stranded in standstill traffic on Interstate 95 in Virginia after Monday's snowstorm, took matters into their own hands to help strangers and escape their nightmarish situation.
Safwan Aziz and John Hildenbrand were traveling from New York to South Carolina for work when snowfall caused a massive traffic jam between Ruther Glen in Caroline County and Dumfries in Prince William County on Monday. Multiple disabled vehicles and mounting ice and snow trapped people in their cars, many without food or water and with dwindling fuel.
For Aziz and Hildenbrand, whose story was told by the Washington Post, the problem was a pair of "massive trees" that had fallen on the highway shoulder, preventing them from driving their truck just a quarter-mile to exit 140 and Route 1, which was still open.
The two men had left New York early Monday morning, according to the Post. They reached I-95 at around 10 a.m. Monday, and by the early afternoon, traffic began to slow down. They moved forward in intermittent 50-foot bursts as snow and slush piled up around them.
The men said they saw other people shut their cars off and suffer the cold in order to conserve gas. Some people left their vehicles abandoned on the highway. By 8 p.m. Monday night, traffic had reached an excruciating halt. They were forced to spend the night in their truck, without much sleep. With each other for company, they chain-smoked cigarettes, listened to the radio for updates, and passed the time watching the flashing lights of other vehicles in distress.
The next morning, Aziz and Hildenbrand used the generator on their welding truck to brew three pots of coffee. Aziz, who told the Post he never leaves home "without my boots laced up" — meaning he always leaves home prepared — had packed Cliff bars, party mix, 32 water bottles, and his mother-in-law's mother's pecan pistachio bread. They shared the coffee, water, and food with other stranded drivers, walking from car to car and knocking on windows to provide a helping hand.
“We’re a bit rough around the edges. We’re welders. We don’t look like the type of people to necessarily be asking to help you out,” Hildenbrand told the Post. “Some people didn’t roll their windows down, but others saw through that.”
One man had several cans of Pepsi in his car. He cut the tops off to create makeshift mugs, filled them with the welders' coffee, and began handing them out to other travelers.
“Before you know it, there were six to eight of us standing around the work truck,” Aziz said. “All of us basically admitting that it was this — right here — that had lifted our spirits in just a really” bad situation, he said, using an expletive.
But by 8 a.m on Tuesday morning, the welders decided they had waited on that maddening highway long enough. Those trees, each probably weighing hundreds of pounds after being layered with ice and snow, were the only obstacle standing in the way of their freedom. And they had to go.
“It was kind of like a survival mode,” Hildenbrand said. “We just felt: ‘I need to get off this highway.’"
“I just wanted,” Aziz said, “to get the hell away from that road.”
So with great effort, the two men managed to shove those trees far enough apart that their sturdy four-wheel-drive truck could pass through. They drove over at least a foot of snow and ice to escape on exit 140, leaving a path that was too difficult for most drivers to follow.
As they took the exit, Aziz told the Post he saw a man sitting in a Virginia Department of Transportation truck.
“He was just sitting there in his car all warm and cozy, didn’t look like he had a care or concern about all the miles of traffic he was looking at,” Aziz said.
“In my opinion, VDOT should have loaded that truck with food and water and that man should have driven along handing out food and water to people that needed it,” Hildenbrand said. “It shouldn’t have been a couple of welders from New York. The state of Virginia should have pulled its pants up, got out there and done more for the people of Virginia.”
After making it to Route 1, the welders continued on, driving slowly through the snow for about an hour and a half. Then the road cleared up, and they were able to reach a glorious 70 miles per hour. The men arrived at their destination in South Carolina just before 4 p.m. Tuesday, a full 36 hours after they'd left New York.
At their hotel, they cracked open some beers and ordered a cheesesteak pizza to celebrate being off the road.
“It’s a good thing John and I are such good friends, because it should be illegal to have to spend 36 hours” trapped in a car with another man, Aziz said. “A good-looking woman? Maybe. But a man? No way.”
VDOT said Wednesday that I-95 in the Fredericksburg area was open, although some icy conditions have persisted. At a press conference, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) called the ordeal "an incredibly unusual event." Transportation officials said rainfall before the weather turned to snow would have washed away any treatment on roadways to prevent icing, USA Today reported.