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6 Dead, 37 Hospitalized After 70-Car Dust Storm Pileup

6 Dead, 37 Hospitalized After 70-Car Dust Storm Pileup

6 Dead, 37 Hospitalized After 70-Car Dust Storm Pileup

Victims range in age from 2 to 88 years old.

By Joe Sutton, CNN

(CNN) – At least six people were killed Monday when a dust storm caused more than 70 vehicles to crash along a major highway in central Illinois, officials said.

The crashes along Interstate 55 happened shortly before 11 a.m. CT 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, Springfield, is in Sangamon County.

Six people were killed and 37 people were hospitalized with injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening, Illinois State Police said. Those injured in the wrecks ranged in age from 2 to 80 years old, Illinois State Police Maj. Ryan Starrick said.

One of those killed in the wrecks was Shirley Harper, 88, of Franklin, Wisconsin, police said Monday evening. Officials still were working to identify the five others who were killed and notify their families, police said.

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

The wrecks happened in both north and southbound lanes, but all the deaths were reported in northbound lanes, he said.

The interstate in southern Sangamon and northern Montgomery counties would remain closed as officials investigate and clear vehicles, he said. It remained closed late Monday.

CNN has reached out to county coroner offices and state police for more information.

“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 in a news release.

CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said 45 mph winds picked up the dust and suddenly made it nearly impossible to see on the short stretch of highway.

“The deciding factor today was the tilled fields,” he said. “This was a localized event by localized conditions.”

Rescuers dealt with ‘a difficult scene’

Photos from the wrecks show a thick yellow haze in the air hanging over the highway. The images show vehicles on fire and smoke mixing with the haze as first responders survey the damage.

Kevin Schott, the director of Montgomery County's Emergency Management Agency, said first responders had a difficult time responding to the scene due to the thick dust, noting everyone’s “eyes are full of it.”

“This is a difficult scene, something that is very hard to train for, something that we really haven't experienced locally,” he said.

Schott said through the thick haze, first responders were met with multiple vehicles on fire and dozens of vehicles scattered across both sides of the road, making it hard to get to “victims in a rapid manner.”

“We had to search every vehicle, whether they were involved in the accident or just pulled over, to check for injuries,” he said.

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

“Severely limited visibilities are expected. Travel will be dangerous and possibly life-threatening,” the warning stated. Winds across the region have been gusting between 35 and 45 mph.

The warning went on to say that people with respiratory problems should plan to stay inside until the storm passes. It noted to "be ready for a sudden drop in visibility to near zero."

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