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Dust storm causes huge pileup, 6 fatalities on I-55 south of Springfield

6 dead after dust storm causes pileup on I-55
6 dead after dust storm causes pileup on I-55 02:28
Several cars and trucks were destroyed in a fire following the massive crash on Interstate 55 on Monday.  Alexis Geggie

DIVERNON, Ill. (CBS) -- Blowing dust caused a pileup of crashes involving 72 vehicles and six fatalities along a stretch of Interstate 55 south of Springfield on Monday. 

All southbound and northbound lanes reopened at 6 a.m. on Tuesday.  

Crews working to clear I-55 after dust storm causes deadly pileup 02:38

Illinois State Police said a total of 37 people were taken transported to four local hospitals. 

State police provide update after deadline dust storm pileup on Interstate 55 04:22

One of the victims who died was identified late Monday as Shirley Harper, 88, of Franklin, Wisconsin. The Montgomery County Coroner's office was working late Monday to identify the others who died.

Three other victims have been tentatively identified and authorities are working to notify family.  

Two others have not been identified and police are seeking the public's help.  One was driving a blue Chrysler 300 and the other a Hyundai, but the model could not be determined.  Anybody with information should call 618 346 3653. 

Police said the people injured ranged in age from 2 to 80 years old and their injuries ranged from minor to life threatening.

Poor visibility due to blowing dust cased a huge pileup of vehicles on Interstate 55.  Nathan Cormier

Ryan Starrick, the ISP southern region command major, said police believed they had transported everyone off of the interstate  by Monday afternoon, although first responders still conducted a secondary search.

As crews removed the mangled cars from I-55, many of them were brought to a field – and the damage was clearly very severe. Some of the cars were burned out, while others were heavily damaged to the point of being nearly unrecognizable.

The initial crash happened shortly before 11 a.m. in the northbound lanes with additional crashes in the southbound lane. Two semi-trailers caught fire as a result of the crashes.

More than 30 fire and police agencies rushed to the scene. The storm was described as being similar to white-out blizzard conditions.

Excessively high winds blew soil from farms to the west onto the roadway, though officials say this is not uncommon and has happened before. The dust storm is a combination of meteorological conditions and human activity, namely agricultural land cultivation and leaving topsoil bare, according to CBS 2 Meteorologist Robb Ellis.

The National Weather Service issued a blowing dust warning for the area, specifically Sangamon, Christian, and Shelby counties, until 7 p.m. on Monday.

Officials said while storms like Monday's have happened before, they hadn't seen conditions quite like those that caused the pileup.

The NWS documented a dust storm back in May of 2017 which reduced visibility to near zero for several hours in open areas and caused numerous car accidents and closures of highways including I-72 from Jacksonville to Springfield and I-74 from McLean to near Bloomington.

Large section of I-55 in downstate Illinois to remain closed due to huge pileup 02:28

Drivers took to social media to share photos and video of what appears to be a dust storm.  

Nathan Cormier was driving on the interstate at the time of the crash. CBS 2's Charlie De Mar reported Cormier was covered in dust and posted dramatic video on Facebook after trying to check on people stuck in the pileup.

"I just went ahead and went from vehicle to vehicle trying to find people," said Cormier. "Most of them were just minor injuries."

In one video, several trucks are seen in a pileup.

Avoid I-55 at all costs. Auburn to Farmersville. Massive pile up due to dust bowl

Posted by Nathan J. Cormier on Monday, May 1, 2023

"It got really windy and you'd see trucks and the backs of truck swaying," said Leyla Arsan, who was caught in the storm. "It looked like smoke and as we got closer, it looked like dust and it looked like some smoke and then we came to a complete standstill."

Truck driver Jim Phillips was also caught in the middle of it all.

"Wreckage everywhere - people was driving and slamming on their brakes – and just basically like demolition derby," he said.

Phillips said a U-Haul driver went airborne into his truck, and then other cars hit him from behind.

"Somebody had slammed into the back of the trailer and went underneath the trailer," Phillips said, adding he was "all right, for now."

The closures were expanded for both northbound and southbound lanes between mileposts 63 and 80 which spans from southern Sangamon County through northern Montgomery County. Traffic is being diverted onto frontage roads. 

Video posted on Twitter showed plumes of black smoke and there were reports of explosions. 

According to Illinois State Police, Divernon City Hall was being used as a reunification post for families of the crash victims.

The Environmental Protection Agency was on the scene since there was a significant diesel spill. The Salvation Army and Red Cross were there as well.

Crews are back at work at the scene Tuesday morning.

Dust storm causes huge pileup, 6 fatalities on I-55 south of Springfield 02:19
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