At least six people died and dozens were injured in a blinding dust storm Monday morning that piled up in vehicles south of Springfield, Illinois, in what Gov. JP Pritzker described as “horrendous.”
Traffic on Interstate 55 was backed up for nearly 30 miles in both directions.
Video footage posted on Twitter showed dozens of mangled cars and tractor-trailers amid smoke and dust on both sides of the interstate. Flames were still visible from at least one vehicle. One photo depicted an almost apocalyptic scene of charred ruins silhouetted against fog.
“The cause of the crash was high winds blowing dirt from agricultural fields across the highway, leading to zero visibility,” Illinois State Police Maj. Ryan Starick said at a news conference. He said the exact death toll would be released later in the day.
The pileup happened just before 11 a.m. Central Time near milepost 76 in Montgomery County in south-central Illinois, prompting officials to shut down traffic between mileposts 52 and 80, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation.
As of late Monday, Illinois State Police said 72 vehicles, including passenger cars and several tractor trailers, were involved in the crash. Starrick said two tractor trailers caught fire. According to Montgomery County officials, 10 helicopters along with a hazardous materials team were called to the scene to fight the blaze, which involved a power-tool battery on fire in a semitrailer.
Illinois State Police said another 37 people were taken to hospitals with injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening and ranging in age from 2 years old to 80 years old.
The six people who died Monday night were identified as 88-year-old Shirley Harper of Franklin, Wisconsin. The Montgomery County Coroner’s Office is working to identify the other five victims, according to Illinois State Police.
According to WSIL Chief Meteorologist Nick Hausen, dust from newly planted fields led to low visibility in the area.
Nathan Cormier told Weather.com He was driving on the interstate when he saw a cloud of smoke in the distance.
National Weather Service meteorologist Chuck Shafer told The Associated Press that the area was mostly flat with few trees.
“The whole area has been very dry for the last three weeks,” Shafer said. “Farmers plow and plant their fields. The topsoil is very loose.
The dreaded ‘Dust Bowl’
Evan Anderson, 25, who was returning home to St. Louis from Chicago, said a U-turn before hitting his vehicle saved him from further damage.
“You can’t even see,” Anderson said. “People were trying to slow down, others weren’t, and I plowed through. There were so many cars and semi-trucks behind them with such speed.
Kevin Schott, director of emergency services in Montgomery County, said it was a “very difficult scenario” and “very difficult to train for.”
“We had to search every vehicle to see if it had crashed or been towed, to check for injuries,” he said. “People were upset — visibly, understandably.”
“I’ve driven them before, you know,” Cormier said. “You take your risks, slow down. I moved into the left lane to get out from behind a semi. That’s when I saw everything standing in the road.”
He described the scene as a “dust bowl”.
Officials advised people who want to be reunited with victims to call 1-800-REDCROSS.
Officials expected the road to remain closed until the evening, and commuters were asked to seek alternate routes. Wind gusts were between 35 and 45 miles per hour, according to Weather.com.
Dust storms are rare in this region. In 2014, dust from dry farm fields near Carlinville, about 45 miles south of Springfield, led to several collisions on Illinois State Highway 108. A driver told the (Springfield) State Journal-Register that dirt from plowed soybean fields had loosened and created the brown color. Clouds of dust covered the freeway, and drivers were unable to see beyond the hoods of their vehicles, police said.
Contributing: Diffini Jackson and Steven Sperry, State Journal-Register; The Associated Press