Any number of four-letter words might apply to a storm that was blamed for at least three deaths and countless accidents, disrupted travel, and left the streets clogged with a slippery mass that looked like an ugly version of brown sugar.

Meteorologists and power company crews would settle for this one: Luck.

As bad as it was trudging through a cold mess that felt like wet sand at high tide, shoveling the driveway, or trying to persuade the balky white crud to get off the car, this storm could have been far, far worse.

An unexpectedly stubborn layer of cold air spared the region from a more disruptive storm. It might even qualify as a valentine from nature.

The 12 hours of stinging sleet was a far superior alternative to 12 hours of freezing rain that would have bonded like Super Glue to wires and tree limbs, ultimately bringing some down.

Gary Szatkowski, the meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Mount Holly, professed semi-seriousness when he said: "This was a sweetheart of a storm."

That's quite a compliment to something that left as much as 5 inches of snow and ice that won't melt anytime soon. Forget the depths. What you see outside is the equivalent of white ice cubes - the water equivalent of maybe 8 to 10 inches of snow in some places. Even with the sun, the temperatures won't get out of the 20s until Saturday; ice cubes don't melt well in the cold.

The storm also left some city and suburban residents fuming over the perceived tardiness of the plows on their streets, or lack thereof.

Meanwhile, AAA was doing a brisk business, fixing stuck locks and helping a remarkable number of people who got stuck - in their own driveways.

Once motorists got out of their driveways and parking spaces, the main roads were no picnic. At midday, a stretch of Route 202 near King of Prussia - where cars that drive the speed limit can be mistaken for disabled vehicles on normal days - was at a crawl.

In New Jersey, which experienced more freezing rain than Pennsylvania, state police responded to 900 accidents between 5 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. That's not counting the ones handled by local police.

A 23-year-old woman was killed and two others were critically injured in a head-on collision during the early-morning hours on Erial Road and Deer Park Circle, in Gloucester Township.

Two other people were struck and killed during the storm: one on the Garden State Parkway near the Atlantic City Expressway, and the other on the turnpike in North Jersey. In the first case, the driver had gotten out of the car after a fender-bender. In the other, the driver was fixing a flat.

In addition to the fatalities, more than 36,000 people lost power in New Jersey.

In contrast, Pennsylvania had more than its share of road woes - including a 7 p.m. accident on southbound Interstate 95 that shut down the freeway at Broad Street for about an hour - but the loss of power was not a big deal. That despite all the fear and loathing on Tuesday that prompted ice-storm warnings.

Based on the computer models that were predicting the behavior of a storm that left a trail of havoc from the Desert Southwest to northern New England mountains, forecasters saw the potential for heavy, freezing rain throughout the Philadelphia region.

In fact, the storm grounded hundreds of flights and forced the closing of schools and businesses from Kentucky to Maine. Many of those stuck at home had no heat or lights because of blackouts that affected more than a quarter-million customers.

Authorities blamed at least 11 deaths elsewhere on the huge storm system. Blizzard warnings were posted for parts of New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine, where up to two feet of snow was predicted.

The computers did correctly foretell that the storm would re-form off the Atlantic Coast and become a monster for the Philadelphia region. They missed on one critical detail, however.

That was a stubborn layer of cold air, about 3,000 feet deep, that kept warm air from crossing the Delaware. Yesterday morning, it was in the 40s at the Shore and the upper teens in the western suburbs.

With the cold layer in place, what fell from central Jersey westward was sleet that simply bounced off wires and tree limbs and accumulated underfoot and under tires.

What happened? "Something is going on . . . that we don't completely understand yet," said Szatkowski.

It was a welcome error. Even winter-lovers view freezing rain with respect, perhaps the way lovers of marine life view certain sharks.

More than 600,000 people lost power in a January 1994 freezing-rain storm in the Philadelphia region.

Although it was not the bonanza that the snow-plow people were hoping for, the snow and ice accumulation were substantial in the context of a winter almost barren of snow.

The official storm total of 3.9 inches at Philadelphia International Airport was an inch more than the snowfall for the entire season going into Tuesday. As much as 5 inches was measured in Chester County.

And the storm covered such a tremendous geographic area that it turned out to be a traveler's nightmare.

Ask Hayley Lamond, 30, and her fiance, Jon Tice, 30. They are natives of Bethlehem, Pa., and both now live in Costa Mesa, Calif. They came here to visit their families. Bad timing.

They planned to fly out first thing Wednesday morning. All the hotels were booked, so they had to drive to Cherry Hill to find a room. When they got to the airport, they had to wait in line eight hours to book another flight.

They weren't bitter, still love their families, plan to return, and couldn't wait to get back to their Orange County home.

"It's probably about 70 degrees. It's a lot nicer than it is here."

Contact staff writer Anthony R. Wood at 610-313-8210 or twood@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writers Tom Belden, Ed Colimore, Michael Matza and Sam Wood contributed to this article.