In Divernon, Illinois, a severe windstorm in central Illinois on Monday generated hazardous clouds of blinding dust from farm fields, resulting in multiple accidents on Interstate 55 that left at least six people dead, according to police.
Illinois State Police Maj. Ryan Starrick reported that the late morning collisions involved 40 to 60 vehicles, including several tractor-trailers, two of which caught fire.
Starrick confirmed that at least six fatalities occurred, all in the northbound lanes, and over 30 people from both sides of I-55 were taken to hospitals with injuries.
“All you could hear after we were hit was crash after crash after crash behind us,” said Tom Thomas, 43, who was heading south towards St. Louis.
Interstate 55 was closed in both directions in Montgomery County, 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of St. Louis, and is expected to remain closed until Tuesday.
Starrick described the situation as a springtime version of a “whiteout” typically seen during winter snowstorms. Governor J.B. Pritzker referred to the scene as “horrific.”
“The cause of the accidents is due to strong winds blowing dirt from farm fields across the highway, resulting in zero visibility,” Starrick explained.
Dairon Socarras Quintero, 32, who was driving to St. Louis for deliveries with his custom frame company based in Elk Grove Village, stated that after his truck collided with the vehicle in front of him, he exited and moved to the side of the road for safety. He returned after the chain reaction of accidents had ended behind him.
Socarras Quintero said that the dust continued to blow fiercely as he checked on other drivers and emergency personnel arrived on the scene. He showed his dust-covered backpack, which was inside his closed truck cab.
The National Weather Service reported that winds at the time were gusting between 35 mph (56 kph) and 45 mph (74 kph).
Meteorologist Chuck Schaffer explained, “It’s very flat, very few trees. 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 traveling back to St. Louis from Chicago, said a semi turned before hitting his vehicle, preventing further damage.
“You couldn’t even see,” Anderson said. “People tried to slow down and others didn’t, and I just got plowed into. There were so many cars and semitrucks with so much momentum behind them.”
Kevin Schott, director of emergency services in Montgomery County, described it as a “very difficult scene” and one that’s “very hard to train for.”
“We had to search every vehicle, whether they were involved in the accident or just pulled over, to check for injuries,” he said, adding that people were “upset — visibly so, understandably so.”