Dust storm causes deadly 70-car pile-up in Illinois

Multiple people were killed in a crash on Interstate 55 in Montgomery County, south of Springfield, Illinois, Monday morning.

Both north and southbound I-55 were closed from milepost 63 to 80 near Farmersville until 6 a.m. Tuesday.

Illinois State Police said in a 9:30 a.m. news conference that blowing dust from nearby caused "complete blackout conditions," resulting in a pileup just before 11 a.m.

Forty ISP troopers and multiple units from surrounding agencies responded. ISP said at least six people were killed and at least 72 cars were involved in the crash, though there may be more cars involved that were able to drive from the scene.

Due to the severity of the crash and fires, ISP said it has had to use criminal investigation techniques to try and identify the victims.

One of the people killed in the crash was identified as 88-year-old Shirley Harper of Franklin, Wisconsin. Three victims have been tentatively identified, and two more people remained unidentified as of Tuesday morning.

ISP is asking for the public's help in identifying those two victims and has released general information about their heavily-damaged vehicles.

One victim was found inside what police belive is a Blue Chrysler 300. The second victim was found in a Hyundai of uncertain color or model.

Anyone who thinks they may know the victims is asked to call 618-346-3653.

Police said 37 people were transported to local hospitals with injuries.

Those with injuries were transported to four different hospitals in the area. Their ages range from 2 to 80 years old and injuries range from minor to life-threatening.

The Montgomery County Emergency Management Agency said shortly before 11 a.m. Farmersville Waggoner ambulance and fire service responded to a multi-vehicle crash on I-55, just north of mile marker 75. Responding personnel said they encountered blowing dust at the scene.

The crash in the northbound lanes produced heavy smoke due to a large number of cars that were on fire, the press release said.

ISP said 30 commercial vehicles and between 40 to 60 passenger cars were involved in the crash on I-55.

Penny Raab and her friend were driving from Wisconsin down to Mississippi when they suddenly found themselves in the middle of the pileup, stuck for hours. They checked in with 5 On Your Side over the phone as they continued their trip.

"At first we thought there was a fire or some sort, but we didn't think there was going to be such a large dust storm. And then the closer we approached it, the visibility just continually got worse. And then all of a sudden it was just a complete blackout," Raab said.

Raab said she was able to guide their car into the median just in time as she heard the crashes happen one by one all around them.

"And several vehicles hit each other and even the semis had jackknifed by slamming on their brakes or trying to avoid any accidents. There were cars down in the median that obviously were hit or struck and then just drove right down into there. I mean, airbags were deploying all around us," Raab said.

Major Ryan Starrick with Illinois State Police Southern Patrol said the conditions have to be just right to have a situation like this.

"The excessive winds and then the loose dirt on top of the farm fields, depending on which way the wind is blowing and things like that, to cause extreme low visibility, like a white out condition but a brownout condition, because the fact that it is dirt blowing across the roadway. Has it happened before in Illinois?" Starrick said. "The answer is yes. It's not something that is extremely common. Nothing in my 24-year career, that I can recall, having something as severe as this."

The interstate will likely remain closed until Tuesday afternoon and ISP reconstruction is on the scene to remove cars off the highway, Major Starrick said.

"The visibility is still poor in the area, so on top of numerous vehicles all over the roadway that need to be removed, in addition to low visibility, that's why I-55 and that stretch will be closed for such a long period of time," he said.

Around 30 agencies are working on the incident, police said. The Montgomery County hazmat team was brought in as a precaution as crews continue to clear the scene.

READ MORE: https://www.wusa9.com/article/news/local/illinois/crash-i55-farmersville-montgomery-county-illinois/63-0ccb666b-d840-4463-a455-7afea875a961
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