Police release IDs of more victims in deadly dust storm pileup in Illinois
Freshly plowed fields and gusty winds triggered the dust storm, creating low visibility for motorists in the state.
Quetta Penson recalls how quickly visibility dropped to near zero and the harrowing minutes she spent navigating the storm as rescue teams and officials worked to get the situation under control.
Police have identified most of the seven people killed during a dust storm in central Illinois May 1 that created "zero visibility" conditions, triggering a fiery 72-vehicle pileup on Interstate 55. The chain-reaction crashes also left more than 35 people injured.
I-55, a major traffic artery through the state, reopened around 6 a.m. Tuesday, May 2, local time, nearly 20 hours after the crashes were first reported, Illinois State Police said.
Authorities said the first crash was reported at 10:55 a.m., local time, Monday in the northbound lanes near Milepost 76 north of Farmersville, Montgomery County, just south of Springfield. Multiple crashes were also reported around the same time in the southbound lanes, along a 2-mile stretch of I-55 into southern Sangamon County.
Police confirmed seven fatalities, all of which occurred in the northbound crashes. Authorities have released the names of all but one of the victims. They are: Shirley Harper, 88, of Franklin, Wisconsin; Joseph Bates, 73, and Donna Bates, 71, both of Crystal Lake, Illinois; Earl LeGrand, 64, of Florissant, Missouri; and Michael Zinchuk, 55, and Amy Zinchuk, 54, both from Champaign, Illinois.
"Dust storms happen, but it is not something that happens every day here in this part of Illinois ... it’s certainly a terrible, terrible tragedy," State Police Director Brendan Kelly said at a news conference.
Six people are dead after a dust storm caused a multivehicle pileup on Interstate 55 in Sangamon County, Illinois, on May 2.
A total of 37 people were injured, ranging in age from 2 to 80. They were transported to area hospitals with minor to life-threatening injuries, according to police.
Montgomery County emergency management officials said that 10 helicopters were requested to the scene, and that several buses from a local school were also called out to help transport stranded motorists, WAND-TV reported.
Quetta Penson was traveling on I-55 toward the scene when she saw a huge dust cloud "across the entire highway."
"As we got closer, I started seeing a darker color smoke and then suddenly a motorcycle rider that was coming back [toward us]. He was trying to get people to stay as far back as they possibly could," Penson recounted. "He was covered from head to toe in dust."
Then she heard the loud "booms" of gas tanks exploding -- "It was one right after the other," she said.
Leyla Arsan, of Chicago, told The New York Times that she had been driving along I-55 on Monday when she began to see the dust and smoke, but cars didn't appear to be slowing down. “Trucks were fishtailing left and right,” she noted. Arsan said she was forced to turn around to avoid the crash site.
Video from the fiery scene showed multiple tractor-trailer trucks and cars mangled from the crash, with first responders battling both smoke from the collisions and the blowing heavy dust. State police said that at least 30 tractor-trailers and 42 passenger vehicles were involved in the pileup, including two tractor trailers that caught fire as a result of the crash.
Kevin Schott, director of Montgomery County’s Emergency Management Agency, said at a news conference Monday that the thick haze, combined with the dozens of vehicles scattered across both sides of the highway, posed a challenge for first responders trying to reach “victims in a rapid manner.” Everyone’s “eyes are full of it,” he said of the heavy dust in the air.
“We had to search every vehicle, whether they were involved in the accident or just pulled over, to check for injuries,” Schott said.
“This is a difficult scene, something that is very hard to train for,” he added.
State police said the cause of the chain-reaction crashes was due to the "excessive winds blowing dirt from farm fields across the highway leading to zero visibility," as was noted by the National Weather Service’s St. Louis office.
Emergency crews on the scene of a major pileup crash caused by a dust storm on Interstate 55 in Montgomery County in central Illinois on Monday, May 1, 2023. State police said several people were injured. (Nathan J. Cormier)
AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Bob Larson said there was an "enhanced risk" of blowing dust and dust storms in the area due to a "trifecta" of high winds, dry ground and loose soil. Winds from the northwest were averaging between 25 and 35 mph Monday, with gusts between 40 and 45 mph. "In addition to the wind, [central Illinois is] coming off a dry April, with roughly half of the historical average amount of rain during the month," Larson said.
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