Rescue crews in Istanbul and Athens scrambled Tuesday to clear roads that came to a standstill after a massive cold front and snowstorms hit large parts of Turkey and Greece, leaving countless people and vehicles in both cities stranded overnight during freezing weather.
Highways and roads in and around Istanbul were blocked on Monday after the storm hit the city with about 16 million people crossing the European and Asian continents – accumulating more than 80 centimeters (31 inches) of snow in some areas.
Stranded motorists either spent the night in cars, leaving their vehicles to go home or crowded subways and other public transportation.
Rescue teams worked overnight to clear snow-covered roads and highways, but abandoned vehicles hampered their operations. Istanbul Governor Ali Yerlikaya urged motorists to return to their vehicles and move them. Some returned with shovels to free their cars, the private DHA news agency reported.
In Athens, rescue workers were still trying to free about 200-300 drivers trapped on a major highway that crosses Athens and connects the Greek capital with the city’s international airport.
Some motorists also left their cars and went home. Others pulled over to a nearby train station and jumped over the barriers next to the road to reach the platform after spending the night in their cars. The train connection had been suspended, but a train was there Tuesday morning to pick up those who had reached the station from the highway.
The army was sent out overnight to provide food and water to the captives and to help free as many as possible.
Istanbul’s Disaster Coordination Center, or AKOM, says an Icelandic low-pressure system is behind the cold front, and rainfall is affecting most of the country.
Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the snowfall in and around Istanbul would continue until Thursday, urging people not to venture out in private cars unless necessary. He said many of the stranded vehicles were not equipped with snow tires.
Authorities suspended flights at Istanbul Airport – where the roof of a cargo facility collapsed due to snow on Monday – due to security concerns. Restricted flights were resumed at the airport with a plane from Caracas, Venezuela landing in the afternoon. Turkish Airlines said it had suspended its flights until midnight. Istanbul’s second airport, Sabiha Gokcen, also operates limited services.
Hundreds of passengers stranded at Istanbul Airport shouted “we need (a) hotel” in protest of their trials, the newspaper Cumhuriyet reported.
“Nothing is moving. The snowplows can not even reach us,” Ahmet Odabasi, 40, one of thousands of travelers stranded overnight on a highway west of Istanbul, told the Associated Press by telephone.
“I’ve been stuck here for 12 hours now. I’m lucky I have gas, food and water,” said the motorist, who was driving to Istanbul from the city of Edirne, near the border with Greece.
The Greek authorities had warned people to limit their movements only to essentials and use snow chains on the city streets, but many people had gone to work in the morning as the snowfall was much lighter and got caught in their cars as the day progressed. Some of the problems were reportedly caused by trucks slipping and squeezing across the road, blocking traffic.
Authorities and the highway management came under intense criticism for allowing a situation where drivers were stuck for so long.
The blizzard, complete with thunder and lightning, hit the wider Athens area late Monday morning and dumped large amounts of snow over the city. This is the second year in a row that Greece has experienced a freak snowstorm. Last year, similar weather in February left tens of thousands of trees felled by the weight of snow on city streets, parks and forests around Athens.
Officials said the Greek prime minister contacted the motorway administration and asked that each trapped driver receive 2,000 euros ($ 2,265) in compensation, which the motorway administration accepted.
“It was a very difficult night and we were facing unprecedented conditions,” said Minister of Civil Protection and Climate Christos Stylianides. “I want to once again express an apology from the state for all the difficulties that the (stranded) drivers faced.”
Stylianides said about 1,800 vehicles had been stranded on the toll road connecting the capital with the city’s international airport. Emergency measures to deal with the snowstorm in Athens and other affected areas were extended to Wednesday.
The severe weather also rarely brought snowfall to resorts in the southwestern region of Turkey, including Bodrum and Datca, with snow and slippery conditions blocking a motorway connecting the provinces of Mugla and Denizli. The center of Antalya, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, experienced its first snowfall in 29 years, private NTV television reported.
In Istanbul, AKOM chief Selcuk Tutuncu told the AP that 40,000 tonnes of salt have been used since the beginning of the storm to clear roads.
“Right now, there are over 1,500 vehicles and over 7,000 staff working non-stop in the field,” Tutuncu said.
On Monday, authorities in Istanbul suspended intercity bus connections and blocked travel to the city from Turkey’s northwestern Thrace region. Officials were given leave until Thursday, except for those employed in the security, health and transport sectors. Schools throughout Turkey were already closed for a winter break, and universities decided to close until 31 January.
Imamoglu said Istanbul municipality has provided shelter to about 1,500 homeless people. Teams have left about two tons of food for stray cats and dogs, Imamoglu said.
The mayor said he hoped the snow would fill dams and bring relief to the region, which has suffered from a dry period.
The Balkans were also gripped by frosty weather, with temperatures falling well below freezing in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Croatia.
Montenegrin authorities said the lowest temperature ever was confirmed in the northern village of Kosanica, which dropped to -33.2 C (-27.7 F). Previously, the lowest recorded temperature was -32 C (-25.6 F), recorded back in 1985 in the northern city of Rozaje.
In Croatia, authorities urged people to be careful, dress warmly, avoid physical strain and see their footsteps on icy streets and roads. In Bosnia, ice formed on part of the Miljacka River after -15 C (5 F) was recorded in the capital Sarajevo on Tuesday morning.
Elena Becatoros reported from Athens, Greece. Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Derek Gatopoulos in Athens and Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.