(CNN) At least six people were killed Monday after a dust storm caused more than 70 vehicles to crash on a major highway in central Illinois, officials said.
The crashes happened around 11 a.m. CT on Interstate 55 in Montgomery and Sangamon counties, south of the state capital, after dust from freshly plowed fields picked up the highway, police said. The state capital is Springfield in Sangamon County.
Six people were killed and 37 were hospitalized with injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening, Illinois State Police said. Those injured in the wreckage ranged in age from 2 years old 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.
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 wrecks took place on both the northbound and southbound lanes, but all fatalities were reported on the northbound lane, he said.
He said the interstate will remain closed in southern Sangamon and northern Montgomery counties as authorities investigate and remove the vehicles. It closed late Monday.
CNN has reached out to county coroner’s offices and state police for more information.
“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.
“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 difficulty responding to the scene because of the thick dust, noting that everyone’s “eyes were full of it.”
“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.
“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” until 1:25 p.m. CT.
“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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