VIDEO: Six killed on I-55 after 'dust storm' causes large crash in downstate Illinois
CHICAGO - A windstorm in south-central Illinois kicked up clouds of dust on Monday, causing numerous crashes that killed at least six people on Interstate 55, police said.
The crashes began to occur around 10:55 a.m. and involved 72 vehicles, including two semi-trucks that caught fire, Illinois State Police Maj. Ryan Starrick said. The highway was shut down in both directions in Montgomery County, 75 miles north of St. Louis.
"The cause of the crashes is due to excessive winds blowing dirt from farm fields across the highway, leading to zero visibility," Starrick said at a news conference.
State police say the crashes occurred within a two-mile stretch, from Milepost 76 to 78.
Starrick reported that six people were killed – all in the northbound lanes, and 37 people were transported to hospitals with injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening. Ages of the victims ranged from 2-years-old to 80.
One of the six victims killed was identified as 88-year-old Shirley Harper of Franklin, Wisconsin.
The crashes forced emergency officials to close a 30-mile stretch of I-55.
Starrick said such blinding duststorms have happened before on Illinois roads "where unfortunately you have excessively high winds" that blow the topsoil from fields.
Winds at the time were gusting between 35 mph and 45 mph, the National Weather Service said.
"It’s very flat, very few trees," meteorologist Chuck Schaffer said. "It’s been very dry across this area really for the last three weeks. The farmers are out there tilling their fields and planting. The top layer of soil is quite loose."
"Interstate 55 in southern Sangamon and northern Montgomery counties remains closed in both directions because of numerous crashes caused by a dust storm, which has greatly reduced visibility. I-55 traffic is being detoured via Illinois 104 and Illinois 48 through Taylorville," the Illinois Department of Transportation said on Twitter.
All lanes of I-55 were reopened to traffic around 6 a.m. Tuesday, according to Illinois State Police.
Starrick told reporters that it was a spring version of a "whiteout situation" typically seen in winter snowstorms. Gov. J.B. Pritzker described the scene as "horrific."
"The only thing you could hear after we got hit was crash after crash after crash behind us," said Tom Thomas, 43, who was traveling south to St. Louis.
Dairon Socarras Quintero, 32, who was driving to St. Louis to make deliveries for his custom frame company based in Elk Grove Village, said that after his truck hit the vehicle in front of him, he exited and moved to the side of the road to ensure his safety, then returned after the chain reaction of crashes ended behind him.
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Socarras Quintero said the dust continued to blow ferociously as he checked on other motorists and emergency personnel arrived. He held up his backpack, which was caked with dust even though it was inside a closed truck cab.
Evan Anderson, 25, who was returning home to St. Louis from Chicago, said a semi turned before striking his vehicle, sparing him from even more damage.
"You couldn’t even see," Anderson said. "People tried to slow down and other people didn’t, and I just got plowed into. There were just so many cars and semitrucks with so much momentum behind them."
Kevin Schott, director of emergency services in Montgomery County, said it was a "very difficult scene" and one that’s "very hard to train for."
"We had to search every vehicle, whether they were involved in the accident or just pulled over, to check for injuries," he said, adding that people were "upset — visibly so, understandably so."
The Auburn Travel Center in Divernon was initially established as a reunification spot for travelers and families of people who were involved in the crash, according to state police. But as of 3:54 p.m., state police were directing drivers to the Mr. Fuel Travel Center in Litchfield.
"ISP has closed the Auburn Travel Center and is now directing drivers to the Mr. Fuel Travel Center off of I-55 in Litchfield. People needing to reunify with individuals involved in the crash can call 1-800-RedCross," Illinois State Police said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.