Interstate 55 in Illinois reopens after massive dust storm causes pileup, killing 7 people (2024)

Christine Fernando,N'dea Yancey-BraggUSA TODAY

Interstate 55 in central Illinois reopened in both directions Tuesday morning after a deadly dust storm caused a chain reaction of crashes that killed seven people and injured more than 30 more, authorities said.

A windstorm in Montgomery County blew blinding dust off farm fields Monday, causing a pileup involving at least 72 vehicles near milepost 76 of the highway, according to Illinois State Police. The number of fatalities climbed Tuesday to seven after authorities discovered that the remains of one individual were two.

“They were very unusual circ*mstances. 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 crashes, which occurred within a two-mile stretch of I-55, shut down the highway in both directions for nearly 30 miles. The highway reopened around 6 a.m. Tuesday, about 19 hours after shutting down, according to state police.

What we know about victims in Illinois dust storm

Police said 37 people at ages spanning from 2 years old to 80 years old were hospitalized with injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening.

Seven people died, all in crashes on I-55's northbound lanes. Illinois State Patrol initially reported that six people died in the crashes but said Tuesday that "the severity of the crash masked the remains and what was previously believed to be the remains of one individual was two."

One person who died was identified Monday as 88-year-old Shirley Harper of Franklin, Wisconsin. The Montgomery County Coroner's Office is working to identify the other victims, according to the Illinois State Police.

Kelly said Tuesday two of the victims remain unidentified and asked the public for help identifying them. One person was driving a blue Chrysler 300 and the other was in a Hyundai of an unknown color.

Forecasters warn of more strong winds, low visibility Tuesday

A dust storm warning is in effect until 4:15 p.m. along US-51 near the central Illinois town of Pana, according to the National Weather Service. The weather service warned of "near zero visibility" and "dangerous, life-threatening" travel conditions in the area. A dust storm warning is also in effect until 4:30 p.m. along I-55 near Farmersville and Waggoner.

Strong winds are expected to continue in central Illinois through Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service based in Lincoln, Illinois.

Winds gusting from 35 to 40 mph may result in reduced visibility due to more blowing dust near freshly plowed farm fields, the weather service said Tuesday. The service residents to use extra caution while driving and pull off the roadway as far as possible if encountering blowing dust.

What caused Illinois dust storm?

The crashes were caused by "excessive winds blowing dirt from farm fields across the highway, leading to zero visibility," said Illinois State Police Maj. RyanStarrick, adding that the "whiteout situation" Monday was what's typically seen during winter snowstorms.

Winds Monday were gusting between 35 and 45 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

"It's very flat, very few trees," meteorologist Chuck Schaffer said. "It's been very dry across this area really for the last three weeks. The farmers are out there tilling their fields and planting. The top layer of soil is quite loose."

Video, photos show pileup in Montgomery County

Photos and videos showed a pileup of dozens of cars and tractor-trailer amid billowing smoke and dust and burnt wreckage. Flames were still visible from at least one vehicle.

Witnesses describe scene of I-55 highway pileup

After he was hit during the pileup, Tom Thomas, 43, who was traveling south to St. Louis, said "the only thing you could hear...was crash after crash after crash behind us."

Dairon Socarras Quintero, 32, who was driving to St. Louis, watched a chain reaction of crashes behind him before checking on other motorists while the dust blew ferociously. His backpack was 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.

"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."

Contributing: The Associated Press

Interstate 55 in Illinois reopens after massive dust storm causes pileup, killing 7 people (2024)

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