Illinois State Police say interstate back open in both directions Tuesday morning
An Illinois dust storm led to a pile-up crash on I-55 that killed seven people and injured more than 30 others, closing a stretch of the interstate.
MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Ill. (WLS) — A dust storm in central Illinois led to a pile-up crash of more than 70 cars Monday that Illinois State Police now say killed seven people. More than 30 people were injured.
ISP said said that while they were working to identify the remains of the victims, they found that remains they previous believed to belong to one person were actually the remains of two people. The total number of people killed in the crash is now seven.
Crushed vehicles lined the expressway south of Springfield, closing a nearly 20-mile stretch of I-55.
Authorities continued to work to clear that stretch of the expressway, which they said was back open to traffic shortly after 6 a.m. Tuesday.
The same stretch of road was closed again for several hours Tuesday afternoon amid another dust storm warning.
Illinois State Police have released the identity of one victim, 88-year-old Shirley Harper of Franklin, Wisconsin.
Harper leaves behind several grandchildren, a large loving family that described her as kind and generous.
"She would talk to anybody, do anything for anybody," Tim Shaffer, the victim's son-in-law, said. "People like her, we need more of them in the world."
Harper was sitting on the passenger side of an SUV, encountering the dust storm after visiting family in St. Louis. Her daughter was behind the wheel, and somehow walked away with only cuts and bruises.
"It's a miracle my wife made it out," Shaffer said. "I definitely feel God was watching over her."
Police said three other people have been identified, but their names have not yet been released. Two of the people identified were from Champaign, Illinois and one was from Florissant, Missouri.
Police said two victims remain unidentified Tuesday morning. One victim was in a blue Chrysler 300 and the other was driving a Hyundai.
Unfortunately those vehicles are so badly damaged, there's no identifying information. Anyone with information that may help identify the victims is asked to call 618-346-3653.
"It's simply a terrible, terrible tragedy," Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly said. "It was a terrible day here in this part of the state and for the families that were affected by this. And we'll certainly continue to keep them at the center of our hearts."
In the meantime, a full investigation into what led to those crashes is underway. State police will look at the speed of individual vehicles… Even farming practices in the area.
But officials said it's too early to know if there was any wrongdoing. That contributed to Monday's tragedy.
A total of 72 cars crashed into each other, with drivers describing the burned and mangled metal as surreal.
Quetta Penson was driving home to Chicago. She saw the aftermath of dozens of crashes on this two-mile stretch of I-55 about 30 miles south of Springfield.
"It felt like a war zone," Penson said. "We could see bodies that were just lifeless laying in the grass on the side of the road."
The problems began at around 11 a.m. Monday. High winds blew dust from nearby farm fields onto the interstate near mile post 76 in Montgomery County, bringing the visibility down to near zero.
"The proper procedure would be to put your hazards on, get on the side of the road and let the dust cloud go, but people kept just driving into it," driver Nathan Cormier said. "If I hadn't moved to the left lane, I would have been crushed behind the two red cars behind me."
The Illinois Department of Transportation tweeted just after 11:15 a.m. that I-55 was closed in both directions between Divernon and Farmersville, Illinois in Sangamon and Montgomery counties.
Authorities said injuries range from minor to life threatening and the ages of those injured range from two to 80 years old.
As crews work to clear the wreckage, there may have been hazardous materials that spilled. Officials want to ensure all of that is cleaned up before they re-open the area.
Drivers were in disbelief and said visibility was almost non-existent once you got inside the cloud, which moved over I-55 without warning.
Many didn't have time to brake, slamming into cars and trucks in their path.
Cormier captured video of the scene. He was able to slow down just in time to avoid being hit by two cars around him, and one of the first cars to see what loomed ahead over the southbound lanes.
Cormier said he hopped out of his car and started helping pull other stunned drivers from their cars before emergency responders could even cut through the traffic snarl to start evacuating drivers.
He was covered in dust after the effort.
"I know the one car in front of me. He rear-ended a truck, and he had cracked ribs, a lot of facial contusions from airbag deployments. It was a doozy day. It's still going. When I drove into it, it was light at first, and then it just became a, pretty much a gray out," he said.
Cormier was stranded for about four hours.
By later in the day Monday, he was able to get out of the mess, as crews slowly work to clear debris.
Dust storms like this are not uncommon in Illinois.
ABC7 Chicago meteorologist Larry Mowry said winds have been 35 to 45 mph in the area, which has been dry.
Farmers also had just been planting, said Megan Styles, environmental scientist University of Illinois Springfield.
The storm seems to cover 20 to 30 miles, originating several miles west of the I-55 corridor.
Up to 400 migrants could be temporarily relocated to NW Side college
At least 12 killed, 90 injured in crush at El Salvador soccer stadium
1 in custody after possible attempted abduction near NU: police