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Originally published November 23, 2010 at 5:47 PM | Page modified November 24, 2010 at 5:48 AM

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Thousands trapped in cold as I-5 becomes a parking lot

Thousands in the Seattle area were stuck for hours on Interstate 5 and other highways and city streets during the Monday night commute. The gridlock lasted until nearly midnight.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Leonard Sigman, of Des Moines, was heading home from an appointment at the Seattle Cancer Institute when he was caught in one of the worst traffic jams in recent history.

Ehab Nakamoura left his Federal Way store early, thinking he'd get a jump on the commute home to Mountlake Terrace.

Darryl Price, of Phinney Ridge, expected a reasonably simple commute to pick up his daughter at the airport.

They were among those who headed out as usual Monday evening trying to make the best of icy roads, only to become part of another chapter in Seattle's winter-commuting conundrums. Thousands were stuck for hours on Interstate 5 and other highways and city streets throughout the region. The gridlock lasted until nearly midnight. Most waited it out, but some simply abandoned their cars and set off on foot.

For most, the commute was mostly an inconvenience that made us long for bathrooms, food and beds at home. For Sigman, however, the delay put his health at risk.

He and his wife, Debra, left Seattle at 4 p.m. to pick up two prescriptions he needed to treat his lung cancer. After driving southbound on I-5 for six hours, they had moved 7.7 miles.

"We were locked up solid with all the other people," he said.

There were cars stuck alongside the road, and in the middle of the road. People walked along the freeway. Any forward movement was bumper to bumper and so slow that it barely moved the speedometer.

Sigman's drive home took 11 hours and 19 miles, and made him miss vital doses of his medicine.

He blames the state Department of Transportation (DOT) for not keeping the highway passable.

"I'm upset and pretty frustrated about this," he said. "We had a two-day advance notice on this."

His view was shared by many.

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Nakamoura left his clothing store hoping to beat the traffic but ended up driving his van into the thick of it about 5 p.m.

"Before Sea-Tac Airport it started. There were a lot of people to the right, a lot of wrecks, lots of cars swerving, buses in the way. It was really icy, and cars were spinning their tires."

Some seven hours later he was home.

Price left his Phinney Ridge home shortly after midnight after checking the state DOT website. The southbound lanes of I-5 were "green, green, green," showing an easy commute, said his wife, Wendy Graf.

Price hit the gridlock not far along I-5, but his son, who was riding with him, had a smartphone and it suggested he exit at Michigan Street. It took them 2 ½ hours to reach Sea-Tac.

"I got lucky," Price said. "We were frustrated because there was no way of understanding what was going on. I was in a canyon of trucks, which was very scary."

And as you wait, you start getting the feeling that "you'll never get out of it," he added.

Seattle Times employees were among those caught in the gridlock. For Tiffany Campbell, her best friend of the moment became her iPhone and Twitter, which gave her information about what was going on ahead during her nearly 10-hour commute to Tacoma.

"I didn't leave in the afternoon, before dark. I didn't pack an overnight bag. And I waved off several generous offers of a place to stay before leaving the city. At 6:45 p.m., I sealed my fate by pulling onto I-5 Southbound. I wouldn't arrive home in Tacoma until 4:15 a.m.," Campbell wrote in a blog post for The Times.

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com

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