ISTANBUL (AP) — Rescue crews in Istanbul and Athens scrambled on Tuesday to clear roads that came to a standstill after a massive cold front and snowstorms hit much of Turkey and Greece, leaving countless people and vehicles in both cities stranded overnight in freezing conditions.
Highways and roads in and around Istanbul became clogged on Monday after the storm pounded the city of about 16 million people that straddles 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, abandoned their vehicles to walk home or crowded subways and other public transportation.
Rescue teams worked overnight to clear snowy roads and highways, but abandoned vehicles hampered their operations. Istanbul Gov. 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 crews were still trying to free around 200-300 drivers trapped on a major highway that runs across Athens and connects the Greek capital with the city’s international airport.
Some drivers similarly abandoned their cars and walked home. Others trekked to a nearby train station, jumping over the barriers at the side of the road to reach the platform after spending the night in their cars. The train service had been suspended, but a train was there Tuesday morning to pick up those who had made it to the station from the highway.
The army was sent out overnight to deliver food and water to those trapped 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 precipitation affecting most of the country.
Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the snowfall in and around Istanbul would continue until Thursday and urged people not to venture out in private cars unless necessary. He said many of the stranded vehicles weren’t fitted with snow tires.
Authorities suspended flights at Istanbul Airport — where the roof of a cargo facility collapsed from the weight of the snow on Monday — over safety concerns. Limited flights 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, was also operating limited services.
Hundreds of passengers stranded at Istanbul Airport shouted “we need (a) hotel” in protest of their ordeal, Cumhuriyet newspaper reported.
“Nothing is moving. The snow ploughs can’t 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 have been stuck here for 12 hours now. I am lucky that I have gas, food and water,” said the motorist, who was driving to Istanbul from the city of Edirne, near the border with Greece.
Authorities in Greece had warned people to limit their movements to the essential only and to use snow chains on city streets, but many people had set out for work in the morning when the snowfall was much lighter and became trapped in their cars as the day wore on. Some of the problems were reportedly caused by trucks that slipped and jack-knifed across the road, blocking traffic.
Authorities and the highway management were coming under intense criticism for allowing a situation whereby drivers were stuck for so long.
The snowstorm, complete with thunder and lightning, hit the wider Athens area late in the morning Monday, dumping large amounts of snow on the city. It 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 the snow on city streets, parks and woodland around Athens.
Officials said the Greek prime minister contacted the highway’s administration and asked for each trapped driver to receive 2,000 euros ($2,265) in compensation, which the highway administration accepted.
“It was a very difficult night and we faced unprecedented conditions,” Civil Protection and Climate Change Minister Christos Stylianides said. “I want to 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 tollway that links to the capital to the city’s international airport. Emergency measures to deal with the snowstorm in greater Athens and other affected areas were extended into Wednesday.
The severe weather also brought rare snowfall to vacation resorts in Turkey’s southwest region, including Bodrum and Datca, with snow and slippery conditions blocking a highway linking the provinces of Mugla and Denizli. Antalya city center, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, saw its first snowfall in 29 years, the private NTV television reported.
In Istanbul, AKOM manager Selcuk Tutuncu told the AP that 40,000 tons 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 personnel working out in the field nonstop,” Tutuncu said.
On Monday, authorities in Istanbul suspended intercity bus services and blocked travel to the city from Turkey’s northwestern Thrace region. Civil servants were given leave until Thursday, except for those employed in security, health and transportation sectors. Schools across Turkey were already closed for a winter break and universities decided to close until Jan. 31.
Imamoglu said the Istanbul municipality has provided shelter to around 1,500 homeless people. Teams have left some 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 been suffering from a dry spell.
The Balkans was also gripped by freezing weather, with temperatures dropping way below freezing in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Croatia.
Montenegrin authorities said the lowest ever temperature was confirmed in the northern Kosanica village, plunging to -33.2 C (-27.7 F). Previously, the lowest recorded temperature was -32 C (-25.6 F), registered back in 1985 in the northern town of Rozaje.
In Croatia, authorities urged people to be careful, dress warmly, avoid physical strain and watch their step on icy streets and roads. In Bosnia, ice formed on a part of the Miljacka river after -15 C (5 F) were 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.