By ERIN SANSON
A serious accident occurred Monday, May 1 at 10:55 a.m. on Interstate 55 between the Farmersville and Divernon exits. Strong winds and recently tilled fields combined to create a dangerous dust storm, leaving drivers with limited to no visibility due on the road. The end result was an estimated 72 vehicle pile up which left 37 injured and seven dead.
Six fatalities were initially reported by the police, all in the northbound lane. On Tuesday, Illinois State Police (ISP) revealed that an additional victim had been found, saying in a press release, “The severity of the crash masked the remains and what was previously believed to be the remains of one individual was two.” The Montgomery County, Macoupin County and Sangamon County coroners are working to identify the remains of all the victims of the crash.
On May 1 only one victim was identified, 88-year-old Shirley Harper of Franklin, WI. On Tuesday morning, ISP held another press conference, saying they had tentatively identified three more victims but could not release more information at that time. They asked the public for help identifying the remaining two victims. One of the deceased was driving a blue Chrysler 300. The other was driving a Hyundai of unknown model or color. The Illinois State Police asked anyone who may have information to call them at 618-346-3653.
No more information had been released about the seventh victim at the time of publication.
According to Illinois State Police (ISP), at least two semi-trucks caught fire, images from ISP and other media outlets showed destroyed cars and grassy medians covered in flames.
ISP believes an accident occurred at by numerous crashes in the southbound lane around the same time. Winds were gusting between 35-45 miles per hour at the time. The combination of the strong wind, dry conditions and farm work which left loose top soil caused the dust storm.
Those who were injured ranged in age from two to 80 years old. Several requests for helicopters went out, at one point four helicopters were on scene. Ambulances, 37 total, came from Sangamon, Christian, Montgomery and Macoupin Counties to assist with the wreck. The Panhandle School district sent buses to transport stranded motorists away from the scene. The Auburn Travel Center was set up as a point of reunification.
The Illinois State Police, as well as a reported 30 agencies from around the area, responded to the call. Hazmat teams from Springfield were deployed as well as the Environmental Protection Agency due to a diesel spill.
ISP, in its Tuesday press release thanked all of the agencies who responded to the emergency and listed them as follows:
Law enforcement personnel from Divernon Police Department, Hillsboro Police Department, Litchfield Police Department, Macoupin County Sheriff’s Office and Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office responded to the scene.
The following Fire Departments responded to the scene: Carlinville Fire Department, Chatham Fire Department, Divernon Fire Department, Farmersville Fire Protection District, Girard Fire Department, Pawnee Fire Department, Rochester Fire Department, Shell Creek Fire Department, Springfield Fire Department, Springfield Hazmat and Virden Fire Department.
Emergency medical services were provided by: Five helicopters from Air Evac and Arch, America Ambulance Service, Bunker Hill Ambulance Service, Carlinville Ambulance, Chatham Ambulance, Echo 6 Ambulance, Gillespie/Benld Ambulance, Hillsboro Ambulance, Litchfield Ambulance Service, Medic First Ambulance, Morrisonville Ambulance Service, Nokomis Ambulance, Pawnee Ambulance, Prairieland Ambulance Service, Raymond Ambulance Service, Stoughton Ambulance and Virden Ambulance Service.
The Illinois Department of Transportation, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Illinois Emergency Management Agency and the Illinois Secretary of State Police also provided personnel on scene.
Interstate 55 was shut down between exits 52 to 80 and traffic rerouted via Illinois 104 and Illinois 48 through Taylorville. ISP estimated that stretch of Interstate would remain closed until Tuesday afternoon, but the scene was cleared Tuesday morning by 6 a.m. Throughout the day Monday, lines of semi-trucks and cars made their ways through Carlinville and Gillespie due to the detour.
Director of the Montgomery County Emergency Management Agency Kevin Schott described the biggest challenge to be getting to all of the victims in a timely manner. Schott said that Emergency Crews had, “multiple vehicles involved. Some were on fire, so we had vehicle fires to extinguish.”
Schott also said each vehicle had to be searched to check for injuries before moving on. According to CNN, Schott said the first responders were having a difficult time responding to the scene due to the thick dust in the air and that he noted everyone’s eyes were “full of it.”
Schott told CNN that it was, “A difficult scene, something that is very hard to train for, something that we haven’t experienced locally.”
The last time a dust storm was severe enough to shut down a stretch of road was in January of 2014. A five- mile stretch of Illinois 108 was closed due to the limited visibility of drivers and several accidents, which resulted in only minor injuries.
Strong winds and loose dirt on Tuesday resulted in the same stretch of Interstate 55 being shut down in an attempt to avoid another accident.
Many of the vehicles involved in the incident were released beginning at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, May 3.
Those traveling south on I-55 prior to the crash are asked to call 217-685-4354 to arrange for vehicle pickup.
Those traveling north are asked to call 618-346-3653. ISP says some but not all vehicles traveling north will be available for pickup.
Those who had a vehicle retrieved by a tow truck should follow the same instructions as additional information will need to be gathered at the time the vehicle is released.
People retrieving vehicles must provide their driver’s license and insurance to the ISP Command Vehicle located at the intersection of Brown and Henrietta in Divernon.
An officer will ask basic questions such as, who was in the vehicle, the owners phone number, and insurance card information. Adjustors or private reconstruction were not allowed access to the vehicles until May 3, after the vehicles were processed.
The investigation into this incident by Illinois State Police is still ongoing. More details may be released or changed as the investigation develops.