WASHINGTON — Skiers lapped the Reflecting Pool along the National Mall; others used the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for a slope. Hundreds crowded Dupont Circle for a snowball fight organized online, while elsewhere the capital's famed avenues were all but desolate.
Washington took on a surreal, almost magical feel as it was buried under nearly 2 feet of snow Saturday in one of the worst blizzards in the city's history. The nearly 18 inches recorded at Reagan National Airport was the fourth-highest storm total for the city. At nearby Dulles International Airport, the record was shattered with 32 inches.
"Right now it's like the Epcot Center version of Washington," said Mary Lord, 56, a D.C. resident for some 30 years who had skied around the city.
"Snowmageddon," President Barack Obama called it. And even the president's motorcade – which featured SUVs instead of limousines – fell victim as a tree limb snapped and crashed onto a motorcade vehicle carrying press. No one was injured.
From Pennsylvania to New Jersey, south to Virginia, the region was under at least 2 feet of snow. Parts of northern Maryland had 3 feet.
And while the storm created serious inconveniences for many who were without power and faced with digging out, the monuments at Washington's heart seemed even more stately and serene.
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, soldiers' names were buried 16 rows deep, while higher up snow had settled into the letters so they stood out against the black background. The wreaths of the World War II Memorial looked like giant white-frosted doughnuts. The big attraction at the Lincoln Memorial was not the nation's 16th president, but rather a snowman with eyes of copper pennies bearing Lincoln's likeness.
Obama, a snow veteran from his days in Chicago, spoke at the Democratic National Committee winter meeting and thanked those for being "willing to brave a blizzard. Snowmageddon here in D.C."
But after that, the president went inside, hunkering down in the White House.
The snow fell too quickly for crews to keep up, and officials begged residents to stay home. The hope was everyone could return to work on Monday.
The usually traffic-snarled roads were mostly barren, save for some snow plows, fire trucks, ambulances and a few SUVs. People walked down the middle of New York Avenue near the Verizon Center without fear of being hit. The Wizards game to be played there had been canceled.
The Capital Beltway, always filled with cars, was empty at times. Metro, the area's rail system, shut down by 11 p.m., partly because of so-few riders.
"Our car is stuck. We're not even trying," said Tihana Blanc who was walking her dog in northwest Washington.
Philadelphia, the nation's sixth-largest city, was virtually shut down with a record of nearly 27 inches. The Philadelphia International Auto Show at the Pennsylvania Convention Center downtown was a ghost town.
"Last year when I came, there was a line getting in," said Walt Gursky, 28. "Much more relaxing in here – you can actually see what you want."
Carolyn Matuska loved the quiet during her morning run along Washington's National Mall.
"Oh, it's spectacular out," she said. "It's so beautiful. The temperature's perfect, it's quiet, there's nobody out, it's a beautiful day."
The ugly side of the snow led to thousands of wrecks. Trees toppled and about a half-million people were left in the dark and cold. Still, only two people had died – a father-and-son team who were killed trying to help someone stuck on a highway in Virginia.
Heavy, wet snow collapsed several roofs including at Joshua Temple Church Ministry and a private jet hangar at Dulles International Airport.
People tried to dig out the best they could, though the constant snow made it difficult. As Christine Benkoski in Ellicott City, Md., tried to clear her driveway, she said she uncovered how the storm had gone from snow, to ice, then back to snow.
"I feel like an archaeologist," said Benkoski. "I've been out here for an hour, and my only goal is to get to the street."
Shawn Punga and his wife, Kristine, of Silver Spring, Md., went to a hotel because they lost power and were concerned for their 2-year-old daughter, Ryder, who was bundled up in thick pink pajamas and slippers.
"I have just been watching the thermostat," he said. They left the house when it hit 60 degrees.
Trouble for some was business for others.
Angel Martinez and a small crew of contractors shoveled morning and night and plowed streets and walkways of a Silver Spring subdivision.
"Usually there is not a lot of work this time of year, so when I get the call I'm happy for the opportunity to work," said Martinez, 24, of Gaithersburg. "But today there was too much."
The snow comes less than two months after a Dec. 19 storm dumped more than 16 inches on Washington. According to the National Weather Service, Washington has gotten more than a foot of snow only 13 times since 1870.
The heaviest on record was 28 inches in January 1922. The biggest snowfall for the Washington-Baltimore area is believed to have been in 1772, before official records were kept, when as much as 3 feet fell, which George Washington and Thomas Jefferson penned in their diaries.
Associated Press writers Carol Druga, Sarah Brumfield, Christine Simmons and Philip Elliott in Washington, Kathleen Miller in Arlington, Va., and Alex Dominguez in Baltimore contributed to this report.