Illinois highway reopens after dust storms kill 6 people
DIVERNON, Ill. (AP) — An Illinois highway reopened Tuesday after a storm that whipped up blinding clouds of dust from farm fields and led to accidents that killed at least six people and dozens more injured, police said.
More than 70 vehicles, including dozens of commercial vehicles and passenger cars, were involved in accidents late Monday morning along a 2-mile stretch of Interstate 55 in Montgomery County, 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of St. Louis. The highway was closed in both directions after the accidents, but northbound and southbound lanes reopened around 6 a.m. Tuesday, the Illinois state police said.
The accidents involved 40 to 60 cars and trailers, two of which caught fire, Major Ryan Starrick said. The six people who died were all in northbound lanes, while 37 people were taken to hospitals on both sides of I-55.
Those injured in the crash range in age from 2 to 80 and have injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening, police said. One of the six killed was Shirley Harper, 88, of Franklin, Wisconsin. Efforts to identify the five others continued.
Starrick told reporters Monday’s wind-driven dust storm was a springtime version of a “whiteout situation” typical of winter blizzards. Gov. JB Pritzker described the scene as “gruesome”.
“All you could hear after we got hit was crash after crash after crash behind us,” said Tom Thomas, 43, who traveled south to St. Louis.
Dairon Socarras Quintero, 32, who drove to St. Louis to make deliveries for his Elk Grove Village custom frame company, said after his truck hit the vehicle in front of him, he got out and pulled over to the side of the road, turned then back after the chain reaction of crashes ended behind him.
Socarras Quintero said the dust continued to blow furiously as he checked other motorists and emergency services arrived. He held up his backpack, which was covered in dust, even though he was in a closed truck cabin.
Winds were gusting between 35 and 45 mph (56 and 74 kph) at the time, the National Weather Service said.
“It’s very flat, very few trees,” said meteorologist Chuck Schaffer. “It has been very dry in this area for the past three weeks. The farmers are there working their fields and planting. The top layer of soil is quite loose.”
Evan Anderson, 25, returning to St. Louis from Chicago, said half a turn before hitting his vehicle, saving even more damage.
“You couldn’t even see it,” Anderson said. “People tried to slow down and other people didn’t, and I just got plowed into it. There were so many cars and trucks with so much speed behind them.”
Authorities set up staging areas on the way from the crash site to help travelers reunite with friends and relatives.
Associated Press reporters Rick Callahan in Indianapolis and Ed White in Detroit contributed to this report.