Winds stirred up a wall of dust from farm fields that engulfed a stretch of busy interstate highway in a matter of minutes. The brown cloud’s intensity caked even the insides of vehicles in dirt. As darkness enveloped them, some cars and trucks hurtling down the road put on their brakes; others didn’t.
They slammed into one another, leaving them mangled or in some cases, burned. And when it was over, almost 40 people were injured and six people were dead — two of them still unidentifiable.
Monday’s deadly and fiery crashes along a two-mile stretch of Interstate 55 in central Illinois, 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of St. Louis and just south of the state capital of Springfield, came as high spring winds kicked up dust at a time when farmers are busy tilling or planting their fields, police said.
“They were very unusual circumstances. Certainly dust storms happen, but it is not something that happens every day here in this part of Illinois or any part of Illinois,” Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly said at a news conference Tuesday.
The interstate highway was closed in both directions after Monday’s crashes, but northbound and southbound lanes reopened around 6 a.m. Tuesday, Kelly said.
The crashes involved 40 to 60 cars, along with tractor-trailers, two of which caught fire, state police said. The six people who died were all in northbound lanes, while 37 people on both sides of I-55 were taken to hospitals.
Those hurt in the crash range in age from 2 to 80 and have injuries from minor to life-threatening, police said. One of the six people killed was Shirley Harper, 88, of Franklin, Wisconsin, police said.
Two of six people killed remain unidentified, Kelly said, and state police were seeking tips from the public about their identity. One victim was driving a blue Chrysler 300, and the other was in a Hyundai, its color unknown.
More than 40 troopers were sent to the scene, including members of the state police crash reconstruction team, Kelly said. Those investigators are very early in their inquiry and have a lot of evidence to review and people to interview as part of their probe.
“We have a lot of science that has to be done to see what we can determine,” Kelly said.
Maj. Ryan Starrick told reporters Monday that the wind-driven dust storm was a spring version of a “whiteout situation” typically seen in snowstorms. Gov. J.B. Pritzker described the scene as “horrific.”
Winds were gusting between 35 and 45 mph (56 and 74 kph), the National Weather Service said. Meteorologist Chuck Schaffer said the area where the crashes occurred is “very flat, very few trees.”
Farmers in central Illinois, including Montgomery County, where the crashes occurred, are tilling fields and planting corn and soybeans, the region’s chief crops, said Emerson Nafziger, a professor emeritus in the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign campus.
Much of central Illinois has received little rain in recent weeks, he said, and cropland that is normally wet this time of the year is dry — and with farmers active in their fields, high winds can easily send dust airborne.
“It just has to dry the top surface, a quarter-inch of soil, and then there’s a huge amount to blow around,” Nafziger said. “In this case, a lot of fields have been tilled, some have been planted, but the tillage process and even spreading fertilizer will put up a fair amount of dust.”
Tom Thomas, 43, who was traveling south to St. Louis before Monday’s crashes, said that after the vehicle he was in got into a crash, the only thing he could hear “was crash after crash after crash behind us.”
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, then returned after the chain reaction of crashes ended behind him.
Socarras Quintero said the dust continued to blow ferociously as he checked on other motorists and emergency crews arrived. He held up his backpack, 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 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.”
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