A persistent blizzard has blanketed large parts of Spain with 50-year record levels of snow, halting traffic and leaving thousands trapped in cars or in train stations and airports that had suspended all services as the snow kept falling on Saturday.
The first official victims of Storm Filomena were a man and woman whose bodies were recovered by the Andalucía regional emergency service after their car was washed away by a flooded river near the town of Fuengirola.
Ten provinces of central Spain were on their highest level of alert, including the capital, Madrid, where authorities activated the red warning for the first time and called in the military to rescue people from vehicles trapped on everything from small roads to the city's major thoroughfares.
Sandra Morena, who became trapped late on 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 on 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 were we 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.
The national AEMET weather agency had warned that some regions would be receiving more than 24 hours of continuous snowfall due 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.
Forecasts of up to 20cm of snow were dwarfed by the build-up of over 50cm even in the urban centre of Madrid. By 7 am CET on Saturday, AEMET had recorded a 24-hour snowfall of 33 litres per square metre in Madrid, something not seen since 1971.
The storm is expected to move northeast throughout Saturday, the agency said.
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 on 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.
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.
The storm had caused serious disruptions or closed altogether over 430 roads by Saturday morning, according to Spain’s transit authorities, which urged people to stay indoors and avoid all non-essential travel.
The wintry weather even halted the country's soccer league, with some of the La Liga top teams unable to travel for games. Saturday’s match between Spanish league leader Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao was postponed after the plane carrying Bilbao’s team on Friday was unable to land in the capital and had to turn around.
The regions of Castilla La Mancha and Madrid, home to 8.6 million people altogether, announced that schools would be closed at least on Monday and Tuesday.
The blizzard also yielded unusual images for many Madrileños, including a few brave people heading out with their ski gear on the Spanish capital’s main commercial avenue and in the central Puerta del Sol square, and even a dog sledge that was 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.