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Four dead, thousands trapped in cars as unusually heavy snow blankets Spain

A persistent blizzard blanketed large parts of Spain with an unusual amount of snow today, killing at least four people and leaving thousands trapped in cars or at train stations and airports that suspended all services.

Heavy snowfall in central Madrid, Spain. Source: Associated Press

The national weather agency reported that snowfall in Madrid reached a level unseen in half a century. More than 50 centimetres of snow fell in the Spanish capital, according to the weather agency AEMET.

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 was also found dead in Madrid under a big pile of snow. A homeless man died of hypothermia in the northern city of Zaragoza, the local police department reported.

More than half of Spain's provinces remained under severe weather alerts for Storm Filomena today, seven of them at the highest level of warning.

In Madrid, authorities activated a 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.

Sandra Morena, who became trapped as she commuted to her night shift as a security guard in a shopping centre, 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 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.

As of today, Spanish security services had rescued all the people who were trapped in vehicles - more than 1500, Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said.

AEMET 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.

Woman skies past the Cibeles monument in central Madrid, Spain, after heavy snowfall. Source: Associated Press

The storm is expected to be followed by a severe drop in temperatures in the coming days, 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.

Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas International Airport, the main gateway in and out of Spain, will remain closed at least until tomorrow, Ábalos said, 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 over 650 roads, according to Spain's transit authorities, which urged people to stay indoors and avoid all non-essential travel.

More than 100 roads were still impassable almost 24 hours after the storm began dumping snow on the central swathe of the country. 

The Spanish government plans to take extra steps to ensure that the country's weekly shipment of the BioNTech-Pfizer coronavirus vaccine on Tuesday can be distributed to regional health authorities via police-escorted convoys, the interior minister said. 

The wintry weather did disrupt the country's soccer league, with some teams unable to travel for games.

Today's match between Spanish league leader Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao was postponed after the plane carrying Bilbao's team yesterday was unable to land in the capital and had to turn around. 

Neighbours meeting during heavy snowfall in Bustarviejo, outskirts of Madrid, Spain. Source: Associated Press

The regions of Castilla La Mancha and Madrid, home to 8.6 million people altogether, announced that schools would be closed at least for tomorrow 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 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.