Ariz. dust storm causes huge crashes; 1 dead

Public safety officials work the scene of a multi-car pile-up along Interstate 10 near Picacho, Ariz. on Oct. 4, 2011. A blinding dust storm caused three separate pileups involving dozens of vehicles. At least one person was killed.

PICACHO, Ariz. - A blinding dust storm rolled across the Arizona desert Tuesday afternoon, causing three separate pileup crashes. One man was killed and at least 15 other people were injured, authorities said.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety says 24 vehicles were involved in the three crashes along Interstate 10.

The first two crashes occurred just after noon near Picacho, about midway between Phoenix and Tucson. Those collisions involved 16 vehicles, including tractor-trailers.

DPS spokesman Bart Graves says two people involved in those collisions are "extremely critical." The heavy dust prevented authorities from using helicopters to get them to a hospital.

The third pileup occurred almost two hours later just north of Casa Grande and involved eight vehicles. Graves says no one was killed in that collision but that two people have serious but non-life-threatening injuries.

One of the early afternoon crashes occurred in the eastbound lanes of the interstate and the other in the westbound lanes as a dust storm suddenly moved in. Such storms are common across southern Arizona's dusty landscape during dry and windy conditions, and walls of dust more than a mile high can blanket an area in a matter of seconds, sometimes reducing visibility to zero.

Traffic was backed up at least five miles, and all traffic was being diverted elsewhere while the interstate was closed.

Although it was still early to evaluate the extent of the damage, Graves said dust storms have created worse crashes. One in 2009 near Casa Grande caused chain-reaction explosions and fires and killed three people, he said.

"We did not have that, fortunately, in this situation," he said. "While it's sad there's a fatality and it's serious, it could have been a lot worse."