Six people were killed and at least 37 others injured in crashes on Monday when a rare dust storm swept through nearby farms and onto a highway in a rural section of Illinois, causing “zero visibility” conditions, the Illinois State Police said.
The crashes, on a two-mile stretch of Interstate 55 in central Illinois, took place on both sides of the highway just before 11 a.m., the police said in a statement. The crashes involved passenger cars and commercial vehicles, including two tractor-trailers that caught fire.
The police later said that 72 vehicles had been involved in the accidents, and that the six deaths had all occurred in the northbound lanes.
The accident happened near Farmersville, Ill., south of Springfield and west of Indianapolis. The highway in that area remained closed in both directions as of early Tuesday morning.
The people injured were between 2 and 80 years old, and their injuries ranged from minor to life-threatening, the authorities said. It had been difficult to extract people from their vehicles, some of which were engulfed in flames, they added.
“This is a difficult scene, something that is very hard to train for, something that we really haven’t experienced locally,” Kevin Schott, the director of Montgomery County’s emergency management agency, said at a news conference on Monday. The Environmental Protection Agency was called on to manage the spillage from some of the diesel trucks.
The dust storm came on rapidly, creating conditions similar to a snowstorm whiteout, in which visibility is greatly reduced, the authorities said.
Although dust storms can occur anywhere in the United States, they are most common in the Southwest, according to the National Weather Service. They rarely occur in central Illinois, Ben Deubelbeiss, a meteorologist with the service, said.
But a dry spell, combined with very strong winds, had created Monday’s conditions, Mr. Deubelbeiss added, noting that the Springfield airport — about 30 miles north of the crash site — had recorded just half of its usual rainfall for the month of April. Wind gusts at the airport were blowing up to 40 miles per hour on Monday, he added.
Leyla Arsan, a Chicago resident, said she had been driving along Interstate 55 on Monday when she began to see dust and smoke. Despite the high winds, Ms. Arsan said, cars did not appear to be slowing down, and “trucks were fishtailing left and right.” She was ultimately forced to turn around on the highway to avoid the crash site about three miles ahead.
Similar conditions caused an eight-vehicle pileup in Amarillo, Texas, last month, but the authorities there said that no one was seriously injured.
Nick Gorman, who works in Farmersville, said that he had seen a “huge cloud of dust” late Monday morning that tasted like chalk, made him cough and obscured the view for miles. He said he had never experienced a dust storm warning in the village, which has a population of fewer than 700 people.
“August is whenever it’s really dusty,” Mr. Gorman, 22, said. “It was kind of odd for this time of year.”
Mike Ives contributed reporting.