It became the road trip from hell, but Casey Holihan and her husband, John Noe, didn’t know that when they left their Ellicott City home around 11 a.m. Monday.
Though it had snowed that morning, they figured the main roads would be clear. And skipping the trip wasn’t an option. The couple leaves for Germany next week for Noe’s job in the Air Force. It was their last chance to visit his family in North Carolina for potentially years.
After hours of stop-and-go traffic as they made their way south, by Monday evening, they were among the hundreds stranded at a standstill in a massive, 48-mile backup along Interstate 95 south of Washington amid a storm that froze roadways and dumped 12 inches of snow.
While Virginia transportation workers struggled to clear jackknifed trucks and other accidents blocking traffic, Holihan, 23, and her husband, 24, slept overnight in their car. In the morning, they checked social media for updates on road conditions and saw nothing.
With temperatures in the teens, they and hundreds of other drivers were cold, scared and very hungry.
By the light of day, Holihan realized that they were parked behind a truck for Baltimore’s Schmidt Baking Company.
“We stared at it for a long time fantasizing about bread,” she said.
She decided to contact Schmidt’s customer service line to see if there was anything on the truck, and if so, would the company be willing to give it away to the desperate travelers trapped without food for hours. After a conversation with a confused-sounding service rep, Holihan wasn’t sure she’d hear back.
But within 20 minutes, she had the phone number for Chuck Paterakis, a co-owner of Baltimore’s H&S Bakery, which owns Schmidt Baking Company.
Decades ago, his father, John Paterakis Sr., built H&S into the nation’s largest privately owned bakery; it provides much of the bread for McDonald’s and Popeyes chains nationwide and also sells in stores from Virginia to Maine.
Giving back “is something that’s in our company values and it’s in our culture,” Paterakis said. “If you don’t give back to the community … you as a company are not going to be able to succeed.”
The truck’s driver, Ron Hill, had left the bakery on Belair Road the previous morning with 8,000 loaves destined for a distribution center in Norfolk, Virginia.
In his 14-year career as an independent truck driver, the 60-year-old Hill said he’s never seen anything like this week’s backup on I-95.
“It was just different,” he said. “I’m a veteran so I’m pretty much prepared for anything.”
He mainly worried about running out of diesel as he kept his truck going to stay warm. He slept two hours and had nothing to eat.
When morning came and there was still no sign of help, Hill said he went into the back of his truck to pray.
“Tears started rolling down my eyes,” he said.
He said he worried about all the people around him, and thought about giving out the loaves, but “the bread was already accounted for.”
It was just about then that Hill heard a knock on his truck’s door. It was Holihan, with a message to “call Chuck,” he recalled. “It was Chuck Paterakis. ... He said to pass out the bread.”
He opened the back of the truck and began passing out loaves with Holihan and her husband. They slipped and skidded on the thick sheet of ice coating the road.
“People were thankful and grateful,” said Hill, who spent Wednesday fielding calls from national media outlets from Inside Edition to Fox News as he drove to New Jersey for work.
Altogether, Holihan said they passed out around 400 loaves of bread over the course of an hour. The seemingly endless and cold gridlock was one of the worst experiences of her life, but she’s glad they were able to make it a little less awful for people.
When the couple returned to their car, famished and tired, they realized they hadn’t saved any bread for themselves. They walked back up to the truck and asked for another loaf.
They received a bag of potato rolls too, and Holihan bit into one.
“It was the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my entire life.”