6 dead after rare Illinois dust storm causes highway pileup
Six people died and at least 37 others were injured in a massive highway pileup caused by "a rare dust storm" in a rural area in central Illinois, The New York Times reports. Illinois State Police say the sudden storm led to "zero visibility" conditions.
The crashes occurred on both sides of a two-mile stretch of Interstate 55 just before 11 am on Monday, the police said in a statement. The highway in the area of the incident was closed in both directions until this morning. In a later update, authorities said there were 72 vehicles involved in the accident and that all six deaths occurred in the northbound lanes. The wrecks "involved passenger cars and commercial vehicles, including two tractor-trailers that caught fire," the Times summarizes.
"The cause of the crash is due to excessive winds blowing dirt from farm fields across the highway leading to zero visibility," Illinois State Police said.
Dust storms can occur anywhere in the U.S., but the National Weather Service says they are most common in the Southwest. Ben Deubelbeiss, a meteorologist with the service, told the Times that they rarely occur in central Illinois. Earlier this year, a similar storm that caused near "brown out" conditions led to an eight-vehicle pileup in Amarillo, Texas, though authorities said there were no serious injuries.
A recent research paper from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Air Resources Laboratory found that dust storms "are contributing to a larger number of U.S. traffic fatalities than are recorded." The team examined records from 2007-2017 and found about 232 deaths from "dust storm-related traffic events," while previous data only reported a total of 10 deaths for the same time period.
"We found that dust events caused life losses comparable to events like hurricanes and wildfires in some years," said Daniel Tong, author of the paper and research scientist at NOAA.