By JOHN O’CONNOR
DIVERNON, Ill. (AP) — An interstate highway in Illinois reopened Tuesday after a windstorm that kicked up clouds of blinding dust from farm fields and led to crashes that killed at least six people and injured dozens more, police said.
More than 70 vehicles, including dozens of commercial vehicles and passenger cars, were involved in crashes late Monday morning along a 2-mile stretch of Interstate 55 in Montgomery County, 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of St. Louis. The highway was closed in both directions after the crashes, but northbound and southbound lanes reopened around 6 a.m. Tuesday, Illinois State Police said.
The crashes involved 40 to 60 cars, along with tractor-trailers, two of which caught fire, Maj. Ryan Starrick said. The six people who died were all in northbound lanes, while 37 people on both sides of I-55 were taken to hospitals.
Those hurt in the crash range in age from 2 to 80 and have injuries from minor to life-threatening, police said. One of the six people killed was Shirley Harper, 88, of Franklin, Wisconsin. Efforts to identify the five others continued.
Starrick told reporters that Monday’s wind-driven dust storm was a spring version of a “whiteout situation” typically seen in winter snowstorms. Gov. J.B. Pritzker described the scene as “horrific.”
“The only thing you could hear after we got hit was crash after crash after crash behind us,” said Tom Thomas, 43, who was traveling south to St. Louis.
Dairon Socarras Quintero, 32, who was driving to St. Louis to make deliveries for his custom frame company based in Elk Grove Village, said that after his truck hit the vehicle in front of him, he exited and moved to the side of the road, then returned after the chain reaction of crashes ended behind him.
Socarras Quintero said the dust continued to blow ferociously as he checked on other motorists and emergency crews arrived. He held up his backpack, caked with dust even though it was inside a closed truck cab.
Winds at the time were gusting between 35 and 45 mph (56 and 74 kph), the National Weather Service said.
“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.”
Evan Anderson, 25, who was returning home to St. Louis from Chicago, said a semi turned before striking his vehicle, sparing him even more damage.
“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.”
Authorities set up staging areas away from the crash site to help travelers reunite with friends and relatives.
Associated Press reporters Rick Callahan in Indianapolis and Ed White in Detroit contributed to this report.