Two children are among six people who died in a pileup in Montana after a dust storm Friday night caused a power outage on Interstate 90, a major road in Montana and the western United States.
Montana Highway Patrol Sgt. Jay Nelson said investigators have so far found no other contributing factors to the pileup which also sent eight other injured people to hospital.
“Everything points to an isolated extreme weather event,” Nelson said of the investigation, calling the crash one of the worst he’s seen in 24 years with the state. “What could people do? It was really just panic.
The pileup was just west of Hardin, with additional ambulances called from Billings to help. The identity of the dead and the conditions of the survivors are not yet disclosed.
The crash was reported around 4:30 p.m. as 21 vehicles, including six commercial tractor-trailers, lost control in the dust storm which was fueled by gusts exceeding 60 mph (97 kph), officials said. authorities.
Nelson said there was zero visibility for a mile-long stretch during a peak summer traffic hour for those commuting to work or traveling for outdoor recreation.
It took more than six hours to fully reopen the road.
“We had a lot of debris and complete chaos,” Nelson said.
Governor Greg Gianforte said on Twitter“I am deeply saddened by the news of a mass accident near Hardin. Please join me in prayer to uplift the victims and their loved ones. We are grateful to our first responders for their service.
Attorney General of Montana, Austin Knudsen said in a statement that the Montana Highway Patrol, which he oversees, was investigating. “We will release more information as it becomes available and appropriate out of respect for the lives lost and their loved ones.
A video from The Billings Gazette showed hundreds of tractor-trailers, RVs and cars backed up for miles along the two eastbound lanes of the freeway.
Prior to the pileup, storms arose in south-central Montana between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. and slowly began moving eastward, said Billings National Weather Service meteorologist Nick Vertz.
Those storms sparked a severe thunderstorm watch that covered Hardin and other parts of Montana from mid-afternoon until 9 p.m. Friday. Meteorologists have predicted the potential for isolated quarter-sized hail, scattered gusts up to 75 mph (121 km/h) and frequent lightning.
A so-called outflow – or wind wave produced by storms – flew about 30 miles (48 kilometers) before the storms, Vertz said.
Winds picked up quickly at the time of the crash, according to readings from nearby Big Horn County Airport. A gust of 40 mph (64 kph) was recorded about 15 minutes before the accident was reported and within an hour another gust of wind hit 64 (103 kph).
The wind easily picked up dust — a product of recent temperatures in the 90s and in the triple digits over the past week — and reduced visibility to less than 1/4 mile (0.4 kilometer).
“If they looked up into the sky while they were in Hardin, they probably didn’t see much of what you’d think for a thundercloud, maybe not even much. at all,” Vertz said. “It was just a gust of wind that kind of appeared out of nowhere.”