Blinding US dust storm leads to fatal collisions in Illinois

Up to 60 cars and nearly 30 commercial vehicles collided on a rural highway, killing at least six passengers.

Seen through a car window, a line of cars and transport trucks are stalled on a US highway and in the grassy media as a haze lingers in the air.
A dust storm reduced visibility to near zero on an Illinois highway, causing a fatal pileup on May 1 [Thomas DeVore, TMX/Reuters]

Gusting winds in the Midwestern United States have kicked up a fatal dust storm, reducing visibility to zero and triggering a major vehicle pileup that killed at least six people on an Illinois highway.

More than 30 additional motorists, from ages 2 to 80, were hurt in the crash as a result of Monday’s storm, according to Illinois state police. Their injuries ranged from minor to life-threatening.

State police reported as many as 60 cars and nearly 30 commercial vehicles slammed into one another as strong winds whipped across the flat farmland near the town of Farmersville, about 40km (24 miles) south of the state capital of Springfield.

Two semitrucks caught fire, adding to the haze that clouded the I-55 highway, shutting down traffic in both the north and south directions. All the crashes occurred within a 3-km (2-mile) stretch of road, from milepost 76 to milepost 78.

One driver, 25-year-old Evan Anderson, said he was headed home to St Louis, Missouri, from Chicago, when the dust storm hit. A semitruck ultimately hit his car.

“You couldn’t even see,” Anderson said. “People try 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.”

Tom Thomas, 43, was also traveling south to St Louis. “The only thing you could hear after we got hit was crash after crash after crash behind us,” he said.

Politicians from Illinois Governor JB Pritzker to US Representative Nikki Budzinski issued statements expressing heartbreak at the “devastating reports” emerging from the highway.

“Our hearts are heavy as we grapple with the devastating news of a massive pileup on I-55 outside of Springfield that has reports of casualties and multiple injuries,” Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton wrote in a statement. “Our entire state will mourn the sudden loss of life and pray the recovery of those injured during this tragedy.”

Kevin Schott, director of Montgomery County emergency management, told reporters at a press conference on Monday afternoon that the biggest challenge was “trying to get to the victims in a rapid manner”, as the windstorm continued to blow at speeds of up to 72 kilometres per hour (45 miles per hour).

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

“This particular situation would be similar to a white-out condition,” State Police Major Ryan Starrick told the press afterwards, referring to snowfall so heavy that everything appears white. “The low visibility, the high winds, everything just came together unfortunately in this particular stretch of I-55.”

While zero-visibility dust storms are rare but not unheard of in the region, Starrick said he had never seen something so severe in his 24-year career with the police.

The US National Weather Service bureau in Lincoln, Illinois, issued a warning for continued “strong west to northwest winds” through Tuesday, leading to precarious driving conditions. “Use extra caution when driving, secure loose objects, and avoid burning if possible,” it warned on Twitter.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies