MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Ill. – Seven people were killed and dozens more were injured Monday when a dust storm led to a massive pileup on Interstate 55 north of Farmersville, Illinois.
The chaotic incident began just before 11 a.m. when Illinois State Police said they responded to reports of multiple crashes in both directions of a 2-mile stretch of the interstate in Montgomery County, between mile markers 76 and 78.
A total of 72 vehicles, which included both cars and tractor-trailers, were involved in the crash. Some burst into flames as a result.
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State police added that 37 people were taken to local hospitals for injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening, and the ages of those injured ranged from 2 to 80 years old.
Seven people have been confirmed dead. State police said 88-year-old Shirley Harper, of Franklin, Wisconsin, is the only victim who has been identified so far.
At a new conference Tuesday morning, officials said three other victims have been tentatively identified while two others have not yet been identified.
They are now asking fo help identifying those two victims. One was an adult driving a blue Chrysler 300 and the other adult was in a Hyundai.
I-55 remained closed until the vehicles were removed from the scene and the Illinois Department of Transportation could inspect the roadway. Officials reopened the interstate early Tuesday but were forced to shut it down again Tuesday afternoon due to poor visibility.
The road was opened again just before 6 p.m.
The National Weather Service in St. Louis said a mixture of freshly plowed fields and gusty northwest winds generated the dust storm in the region.
"What occurred was we had very stable air in place," FOX Weather meteorologist Britta Merwin said. "That’s why it’s so warm. That holds everything down to the ground. And we had these winds kick up to 40 mph that picked up all this dust in some dry farmland that was off to the northwest of I-55."
Merwin added that the wind then blew the dust over the interstate, dropping visibility to zero.
Family pet found alive among wreckage
FOX Weather multimedia journalist Katie Byrne was at the scene of the crash on Tuesday morning and made a miraculous discovery.
"I want to tell you this, too," she said during a live report. "While we’ve been here, a silver lining and I think a big story that’s going to be a focus for today is the reunion for a lot of people who have been concerned about family members who were on the highway last night."
Byrne said that while she was preparing for a report, she began to hear faint cries from a cat.
"We alerted police and they came over and they were actually able to find a cat that was in a carrier bag meowing and doing OK," she said. "They actually just gave the cat water. They’re working on getting the cat some food. But, hopefully, we’re able to reunite that cat with its owner at some point."
The cat, named Harley, was finally reunited with his owner Tuesday afternoon.
"It was very awesome," said Megan Metters, Harley's owner. "The state troopers took such good care of him so well, I am so thankful for them to get him out."
Byrne said that Harley’s owner was actually taken away from the scene in an ambulance, and they wouldn’t allow Harley to travel with her.
She said his owner had been looking for him ever since.
"I am so happy," Metters said, as she cradled Harley in her arms.