Death toll rises to 7 in massive downstate chain-reaction crash

A massive pileup Monday morning south of Springfield caused by a windstorm left seven people dead and involved 72 vehicles. Nearly 40 people were injured.

SHARE Death toll rises to 7 in massive downstate chain-reaction crash
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First responders work the scene of a crash involving at least 70 vehicles that shut down northbound and southbound lanes of Interstate 55 near Springfield on Monday.

Associated Press

DIVERNON, Ill. — A section of Interstate 55 where seven people died in a massive pileup as a windstorm kicked up dangerous clouds of blinding dust Monday reopened Tuesday night after being closed most of the day, authorities announced.

The death toll was previously believed to be six, but another body was recovered from the wreckage Tuesday afternoon.

Lanes of the interstate south of Springfield were closed in both directions in southern Sangamon and northern Montgomery counties “out of caution due to extreme winds creating low visibility and dangerous driving conditions,” the Illinois Department of Transportation said.

Authorities were asking for the public’s help in identifying two of the seven people killed.

“You can be of help to us,” Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly told reporters at a news conference Tuesday morning, a day after at least 72 vehicles crashed, injuring at least 37 people, in addition to the seven people killed.

One victim has been positively identified, 88-year-old Shirley Harper of Franklin, Wisconsin. Three others have been tentatively identified, but their names have not been released.

The two victims who remained unidentified were traveling in a blue Chrysler 300 and a Hyundai. Kelly asked anyone who might have any information to call (618) 346-3653.

Those hospitalized from the pileup are between 2 and 80 years old with injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening, the state police said.

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Aerial view of Monday’s pileup on I-55 south of Springfield.

Illinois State Police

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, Kelly 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.

I-55 was shut down in both directions and did not reopen until 6 a.m. Tuesday.

“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.

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A vehicle on fire on Interstate 55 on Monday. Authorities say 40 to 60 passenger cars and 30 big rigs were involved in multiple crashes in both directions. The interstate reopened at 6 a.m. Tuesday, but a stretch of it has been closed again.

AP Photo

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.”

Authorities set up staging areas away from the crash site to help travelers reunite with friends and family.

The Associated Press contributed

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