Highway reopens after more than 70 vehicles crash in dust storm, killing at least 6

(CNN) A state in central Illinois has reopened a day after more than 70 vehicles crashed in a dust storm that killed at least six people, officials said.

The crashes happened just before 11 a.m. on Interstate 55 in Montgomery and Sangamon counties, south of the state capital, after dust from newly plowed fields took over the highway, police said. The state capital is Springfield in Sangamon County.

Thirty-seven people were hospitalized with life-threatening injuries, Illinois State Police said. The injured ranged in age from 2 to 80 years old, Illinois State Police Maj. Ryan Starick said.

One of those killed in the wreckage was Shirley Harper, 88, of Franklin, Wisconsin, police said Monday evening. Authorities are still working to identify the other five victims and notify their families, police said.

Officials said at least six people died in the wreckage.

Seventy-two vehicles were involved in the crash, which happened along a 2-mile stretch of I-55, police said. Both semi-trucks caught fire, Starrick said.

The accidents took place on the northbound and southbound lanes and all the deaths were reported on the northbound lanes, he said.

The interstate reopened in both directions Tuesday morning, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation Tweet.

CNN has reached out to county coroner’s offices for more information.

A scene from a multi-vehicle crash on Interstate 55 Monday in Montgomery County, Illinois.

“The cause of the crash was blowing dirt from agricultural fields across the highway leading to zero visibility,” Illinois State Police said in a news release.

CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said winds of up to 45 miles per hour kicked up dust and suddenly made it impossible to see along a short stretch of highway.

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“The deciding factor today is plowed fields,” he said. “This is a localized phenomenon due to local conditions.”

A difficult scene was tackled by the rescue team

Photographs from the wreckage show a thick yellow haze in the air hanging over the highway. Pictures show vehicles engulfed in flames and billowing smoke as first responders survey the damage.

Kevin Schott, director of Montgomery County’s Emergency Management Agency, said first responders had a hard time responding to the scene because of the thick dust, which filled everyone’s eyes.

“It’s a tough scene, one that’s really tough to coach, one that we haven’t really experienced domestically,” he said.

Schott said first responders found several vehicles engulfed in flames and dozens of vehicles scattered on both sides of the road, making it difficult to reach “quick victims” through thick fog.

A dust storm caused a major pile-up on a central Illinois highway Monday.

“We had to check every vehicle that crashed or stopped, to check for injuries,” he said.

The National Weather Service in Lincoln, Illinois, issued a “blow dust warning” at 1:25 p.m.

“Severely limited visibility is expected. Travel is dangerous and could be fatal,” the warning said. Winds are 35 to 45 mph across the region.

People with respiratory problems are also being warned to plan to stay indoors until the storm passes. It noted “be prepared for a sudden drop in visibility to near zero”.

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