Two children were among six people who died in the Montana pile-up after Friday evening’s dust storm left blackout conditions on Interstate 90, a major thoroughfare in both Montana and the western United States.
Montana Highway Patrol Sgt. Jay Nelson said investigators have yet to find any other factors that contributed to the pileup that sent eight injured people to hospitals.
“Everything points to an isolated extreme weather event,” Nelson said of the investigation, calling it the worst crash he’s seen in 24 years with the state. “What could people do? It was really panic.”
The pileup was west of Hardin, and additional ambulances from Billings were called to assist. The identities of the dead and the conditions of the survivors have not yet been released.
Officials said the crash occurred around 4:30 p.m. when 21 vehicles, including six commercial semi-trucks, were thrown out of control by a 60 mph (97 kph) dust storm.
Nelson said there is zero visibility for a mile stretch during peak summer traffic hours for people returning home from work or traveling for outdoor recreation.
It took over six hours to fully reopen the road.
“We had a lot of trash and a complete mess,” Nelson said.
Governor Greg Gianforte said on Twitter: “I am deeply saddened by the news of a mass casualty accident near Hardin. Please join me in prayer to lift up the victims and their loved ones. We are grateful to our first responders for their service.”
Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, who oversees the Highway Patrol, said in a statement that the Montana Highway Patrol, which he oversees, is investigating. “Out of respect for the lives lost and their loved ones, we will release more information as it becomes available.
A video from Billings Gazette Hundreds of tractor-trailers, campers and cars backed up for miles on both eastbound lanes of the interstate.
Ahead of the pileup, storms formed in central south Montana between 1 and 2 p.m. and began moving slowly eastward, said Nick Wertz, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Billings.
Those storms triggered severe thunderstorms that shut down Hardin and other parts of Montana from mid-afternoon to 9 p.m. Friday. Meteorologists are predicting quarter-sized isolated hail, gusts up to 75 mph (121 kph) and frequent lightning.
The so-called outflow — or upwelling of air created by the storms — flew about 30 miles (48 kilometers) ahead of the storms, Wertz said.
According to readings from the nearby Big Horn County Airport, winds were gusting at the time of the crash. Wind gusts of 40 mph (64 km/h) were recorded about 15 minutes before the crash was reported and another gust hit 64 (103 km/h) less than an hour later.
Winds easily picked up dust — with recent temperatures in the 90s and triple digits for the past week — and reduced visibility to less than 1/4 mile (0.4 kilometer).
“If they looked up in the sky when they were at Hardin, they didn’t see much, maybe not even much, of what you would think of a thundercloud,” Wertz said. “It was a surge of wind, and it appeared out of nowhere.”
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