Six killed, at least 30 hospitalized after dust storm causes pileup on I-55 in Illinois
A harrowing – and ultimately tragic – scene unfolded in southern Illinois on Monday when a sudden dust storm dramatically reduced roadway visibility and sparked a number of chain-reaction collisions, leaving six dead and many others injured, as Reuters reports.
The chaos on Interstate 55 began at roughly 11:00 a.m. local time and ensnared upwards of 60 passenger cars and 30 commercial vehicles including multiple semi-trucks, according to representatives from the state police.
As Reuters notes, collisions occurred on both sides of the highway roughly 200 miles southwest of Chicago near the town of Farmersville, with two tractor-trailers catching fire as a result.
According to law enforcement sources, over 30 individuals required attention at local hospitals, and their injuries ran the gamut from minor to potentially life-threatening.
Reports indicated that those needing medical treatment spanned ages from two to 80 years of age.
Sadly, at least six fatalities were confirmed by authorities, and one of the victims was subsequently identified as Shirley Harper, an 88-year-old woman from Franklin, Wisconsin.
Dust Storm Blamed
As NBC affiliate WMAQ in Chicago reports, Illinois State Police indicated that the chain-reaction collisions were triggered by “excessive winds blowing dirt from farm fields across the highway leading to zero visibility.”
State Police Major Ryan Starrick declared, “My heart goes out to the families. My heart goes out to anybody that found themselves in this particular situation.”
“It sounds like due to the low visibility, the high winds, everything just came together, unfortunately, on this particular stretch of I-55,” Starrick added.
Experts suggested that seasonal tilling of farm fields may have been to blame for the sudden dust storm, with Starrick noting, “[t]his has happened before in various parts of the state of Illinois, where unfortunately due to excessive high winds, that once the farmers have turned the field, the topsoil or the dirt that's on top there gets loose.”
Speaking to Fox 32 in Chicago was motorist Nathan Cormier, who explained that he was caught off guard by how swiftly such a serious dust storm was able to gain steam.
“I'm used to the smaller dust storms from plowing and stuff, so I didn't think it would be a major deal, but it was a much bigger deal than I expected,” Cormier observed.
Estimating that the storm cloud was “probably a good mile long,” Cormier was one of many who were aghast at the scenes of burning vehicles and mangled metal strewn across the roadway.
Making matters worse, emergency crews reportedly experienced difficulty reaching some of those hurt in the crashes due to the flames that continued to engulf vehicles when they arrived, according to the Daily Mail.
Police Request Public's Help
Though police believe they have successfully identified four of the people killed in Monday's crashes, including the one who has already been publicly named, WMAQ reported separately that as of Tuesday, authorities are still asking for assistance in determining the identities of two of the deceased.
“We have two individuals who, as of yet, remain unidentified, and we're needing information from the public or potentially from family members or from witnesses or anybody who may know anything about the identifies of these two individuals,” said Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly.
He added, “We want to make sure their family, the people that are out there, that their loved ones are concerned about their whereabouts, that we're able to provide some closure and proper identification of who these two victims are.”
Kelly concluded, “It was a terrible day here in this part of the state and for the families that were affected by this, and we'll certainly continue to keep them at the center of our hearts...our love goes out to them, but as we do that job that we need to do here to identify the remains of these last two individuals.”