Fatalities in I-55 'dust storm' crash increase to 7, ISP says
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - Illinois State Police announced on Tuesday that the number of fatalities in the I-55 "dust storm" pile-up increased from six to seven people.
ISP says the "severity of the crash masked the remains and what was previously believed to be the remains of one individual was two."
One victim has been positively identified, 88-year-old Shirley Harper of Franklin, Wis. Three others have been tentatively identified and their names have not yet been released.
State police were also asking for the public's help identifying two other victims who were traveling in a blue Chrysler 300 and a Hyundai. Anyone who might have any information was asked to call (618) 346-3653.
Those hospitalized from the pile-up — 37 people total — are between 2 and 80 years old with injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening, state police said.
The accident happened shortly before 11 a.m. Monday near the town of Divernon, about 16 miles south of Springfield. Forty to 60 cars were involved as well as several semis, two of which caught fire, ISP said.
"The cause of the crashes is due to excessive winds blowing dirt from farm fields across the highway, leading to zero visibility," Illinois State Police Maj. Ryan Starrick said.
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I-55 was shut down in both directions and did not reopen until 6 a.m. the next day. On Tuesday afternoon, a portion of I-55 was closed again due to limited visibility caused by high winds.
"The only thing you could hear after we got hit was crash after crash after crash behind us," said Tom Thomas, 43, who was traveling south to St. Louis.
Dairon Socarras Quintero, 32, who was driving to St. Louis to make deliveries for his custom frame company based in Elk Grove Village, said that after his truck hit the vehicle in front of him, he exited and moved to the side of the road to ensure his safety, then returned after the chain reaction of crashes ended behind him.
Socarras Quintero said the dust continued to blow ferociously as he checked on other motorists and emergency personnel arrived. He held up his backpack, which was caked with dust even though it was inside a closed truck cab.
Winds at the time were gusting between 35 mph and 45 mph, the National Weather Service said.
"It’s very flat, very few trees," meteorologist Chuck Schaffer said. "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 returning home to St. Louis from Chicago, said a semi turned before striking his vehicle, sparing him from even more damage.
"You couldn’t even see," Anderson said. "People tried to slow down and other people didn’t, and I just got plowed into. There were just so many cars and semitrucks with so much momentum behind them."
Kevin Schott, director of emergency services in Montgomery County, said it was 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."
Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.