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At least 6 dead after dust storm leads to crashes in Illinois

May 2, 2023, 6:00 AM | Updated: 6:59 am

Authorities said there were at least 6 fatalities in the wrecks. Photo credit: Courtesy of Nathan J...

Authorities said there were at least 6 fatalities in the wrecks. Photo credit: Courtesy of Nathan J. Cormier

  (CNN) — At least six people were killed after a dust storm caused dozens of vehicles to crash along a major highway in Central Illinois on Monday, officials said.

The crashes along I-55 led to the interstate closing in Sangamon and Montgomery counties after police say dust from newly plowed fields took over the highway. The city of Springfield, the state capital, is in Sangamon County.

Illinois State Police Maj. Ryan Starrick said at least six people were killed and more than 30 people were hospitalized with injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening. Those injured in the wrecks ranged in age from 2 to 80 years old, he said.

Thirty patients were taken to Hospital Sisters Health System hospitals, HSHS spokesperson Jennifer Snopko told CNN Monday evening. Another four people were taken to Springfield Memorial Hospital, hospital spokesperson Anne Davis said. Both spokespeople did not provide information on the conditions of those injured.

At least “40 to 60 passenger cars” crashed starting around 10:55 a.m. local time, he said, and another 30 commercial vehicles also wrecked along a 2-mile stretch of I-55. Two semi trucks also caught fire, Starrick added.

The wrecks happened in both north and southbound lanes, but all the deaths were reported in northbound lanes, he said.

The interstate in southern Sangamon and northern Montgomery counties would remain closed as officials investigate and clear vehicles, he said.

CNN has reached out to county coroner offices and state police for more information.

“The cause of the crash is due to excessive winds blowing dirt from farm fields across the highway leading to zero visibility,” Illinois State Police said in a news release.

CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said said 45 mph winds picked up the dust and suddenly made it nearly impossible to see on the short stretch of highway.

“The deciding factor today was the tilled fields,” he said. “This was a localized event by localized conditions.”

Rescuers dealt with ‘a difficult scene’

Photos from the wrecks show a thick yellow haze in the air hanging over the highway. The images show vehicles on fire and smoke mixing with the haze as first responders survey the damage.

Kevin Schott, the director of Montgomery County’s Emergency Management Agency, said first responders had a difficult time responding to the scene due to the thick dust, noting everyone’s “eyes are full of it.”

“This is a difficult scene, something that is very hard to train for, something that we really haven’t experienced locally,” he said.

Schott said through the thick haze, first responders were met with multiple vehicles on fire and dozens of vehicles scattered across both sides of the road, making it hard to get to “victims in a rapid manner.”

“We had to search every vehicle, whether they were involved in the accident or just pulled over, to check for injuries,” he said.

Evan Anderson, 25, told CNN affiliate WGN he was returning home to St. Louis from Chicago when he got caught in the dust and crashed his vehicle. He said a semi turned before striking his vehicle.

“You couldn’t even see,” Anderson said. “People try to slow down and other people didn’t, and I just got plowed into. There was just so many cars and semi trucks with so much momentum behind them.”

The National Weather Service in Lincoln, Illinois, issued a “blowing dust warning” at 1:25 p.m. CT.

“Severely limited visibilities are expected. Travel will be dangerous and possibly life-threatening,” the warning stated. Winds across the region have been gusting between 35 and 45 mph.

The warning went on to say that people with respiratory problems should plan to stay inside until the storm passes. It noted to “be ready for a sudden drop in visibility to near zero.”

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At least 6 dead after dust storm leads to crashes in Illinois