A persistent blizzard has blanketed large parts of Spain with 50-year-record levels of snow, killing at least four people and leaving thousands trapped in cars or in train stations and airports that had suspended all services as the snow kept falling Saturday.
The bodies of a man and woman were recovered by the Andalucía region emergency service after their car was washed away by a flooded river near the town of Fuengirola. The Interior Ministry said a 54-year-old man had been found dead in Madrid under a pile of snow. A homeless man died of hypothermia in the northern city of Zaragoza, local police reported.
More than half of Spain's provinces remained on alert Saturday afternoon, five of them on their highest level of warning, for Storm Filomena. In the capital, authorities activated the red alert for the first time since the system was adopted four decades ago and called in the military to rescue people from vehicles trapped on everything from small roads to the city's major thoroughfares.
More than 50 centimeters (20 inches) of snow fell in the capital. By 7 a.m. Saturday, the AEMET national weather agency had recorded the highest 24-hour snowfall seen since 1971 in Madrid.
15-minute trip takes 12 hours
Sandra Morena, who became trapped late Friday as she commuted to her night shift as a security guard in a shopping center, arrived home, on foot, after an army emergency unit helped her out Saturday morning.
"It usually takes me 15 minutes but this time it has been 12 hours freezing, without food or water, crying with other people because we didn't know how we were going to get out of there," said Morena, 22.
"Snow can be very beautiful but spending the night trapped in a car because of it is no fun," she added.
AEMET had warned that some regions would be receiving more than 24 hours of continuous snowfall thanks to the odd combination of a cold air mass stagnant over the Iberian Peninsula and the arrival of the warmer Storm Filomena from the south.
The storm was expected to move northeast throughout Saturday, but it was expected to be followed by a cold snap, the agency said.
Transport Minster José Luis Ábalos warned that "snow is going to turn into ice and we will enter a situation perhaps more dangerous than what we have at the moment."
He added that the priority was to assist those in need but also to ensure the supply chain for food and other basic goods.
"The storm has exceeded the most pessimistic forecasts we had," Ábalos added.
Carlos Novillo, head of the Madrid emergency agency, said that more than 1,000 vehicles had become trapped, mostly on the city's ring road and the main motorway that leads from the capital to the south, toward the Castilla La Mancha and Andalucia regions.
"The situation remains of high risk. This is a very complex phenomenon and a critical situation," Novillo said Saturday morning in a message posted on social media.
"We ask all those who remain trapped to be patient. We will get to you," he added.
Main airport closed
Airport operator AENA said that the Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas International Airport, the main gateway in and out of the country, would remain closed throughout the day after the blizzard bested machines and workers trying to keep the runways clear of snow.
All trains into and out of Madrid, both commuter routes and long-distance passenger trains, as well as railway lines between the south and the northeast of the country, were suspended, railway operator Renfe said.
Altogether, the storm had disrupted travel on or closed more than 650 roads by Saturday morning, according to Spain's transit authorities, who urged people to stay indoors and avoid nonessential travel.
The wintry weather even halted the country's soccer league, with some of the La Liga top teams unable to travel for games.
The regions of Castilla La Mancha and Madrid, home to 8.6 million people, announced that schools would be closed at least Monday and Tuesday.
Despite the numerous branches and even whole trees toppled by the weight of the snow, the blizzard also yielded surreal images that entertained many Madrileños, including a few brave skiers and a man on a dog sled seen on videos widely circulated on social media.
Lucía Vallés, a coach for a Madrid-based ski club who usually has to travel to faraway mountains with her clients, was thrilled to see the white layers of snow accumulating literally at her doorstep.
"I never imagined this. It has been a gift," the 23-year-old said. "But I've never had so many photographs taken of me," she added as she slid past the late 18th-century building that hosts the Prado Museum.