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‘You felt like you were in a war zone': Survivors of Ill. dust storm pileup recall tragic day

First responders from Divernon and other locations moved injured people out of the storm that persisted for hours


Some of the vehicles involved in the deadly dust storm pileup crash sit in an area just off I-55

Jeremy Gorner

By Jonathan Bullington, Jake Sheridan
Chicago Tribune

DIVERNON, Ill. — By all accounts, Monday, May 1, started as a beautiful morning. Clear skies. Cool. The gusting wind out of the northwest, not uncommon for a central Illinois landscape covered by vast farm fields and little else, was the only sign of what was to come.

Around 10:50 a.m., Jim and Pam Dawson were about 30 miles from their home in Hillsboro, heading north on Interstate 55 to a Springfield funeral home to make arrangements for Jim’s brother, who died two days earlier from a massive stroke.

In a nearby car, Jane Flanders was on the first leg of an eight-hour trip back to suburban Minneapolis after a weekend spent with her niece’s family in Mount Olive.

Across the grassy median, Cambria Underwood was 5 miles from the Farmersville exit, where she was due to drop off a 3-year-old boy at her mom’s home daycare.

Dozens of other drivers zipped along the busy stretch of interstate connecting St. Louis and Springfield.

“All of a sudden it got thick and dark,” Jim Dawson, 67, remembered. “And boom, it was over.”

A wall of dirt 200 feet high engulfed the interstate. Suddenly blinded and panicked drivers desperately tried to slam on their brakes or veer off the road for safety, only to find none.

Vehicles smashed into each other, some with such force that each collision sounded like an explosion. A half-dozen cars and semis caught fire in the northbound lanes, their charred remains barely recognizable once the flames were extinguished.

In the end, the 84-vehicle pileup killed eight and injured at least 36 others.

[PREVIOUSLY: Video – At least 6 dead after Ill. dust storm causes dozens of vehicle crashes, 2 fires]

“I’ve seen accidents before, but I’ve never seen the magnitude of what was here,” said Jason Martin, who, at the time, was police chief in Divernon, 5 miles north of the crash site. “Cars. Trucks. Semis. People hurt. People lying in the median.”

Authorities believe the cloud of dirt likely came from soil swept off recently planted farms by wind gusts that topped 50 mph.

In the days that followed, some have questioned whether changes to farming practices, along with better storm tracking and alerts from forecasters and police, could prevent another catastrophe.

Others have called what happened that day a “perfect storm,” unprecedented in its size, its staying power and the carnage it caused.

“It was like everything came together to leave this hellish episode,” Martin said. “There’s no other way to explain it besides hellish.”

State police said it would take months to piece together the exact sequence of events leading up to the crash. For victim families, survivors, first responders and residents of the tiny, close-knit communities that dot the region, the mental and emotional wounds will undoubtedly take much longer to heal.

‘Like you were in a war zone’

You’ve been in an accident.

Are you OK?

Do you need an ambulance?

Jim Dawson couldn’t see who was talking. The couple’s Cadillac XT5 was in the grassy median, its front and side air bags deployed.

Blood streamed from his nose. In the passenger seat, his wife groaned as waves of pain radiated through her fractured back.

“Is that your phone?” he asked her before realizing the voice was coming from the car’s OnStar system.

All around, he heard the terrifying crunching of cars smashing into each other. Fearing they’d be hit again, he tried to tell his wife to put her hands behind her head to brace for impact.

A man, barely visible in the swirling dirt, appeared out the window and yelled for them to get out of the car. Suddenly, there was another explosion, louder than the others. Jim Dawson could feel a wave of heat hit him. To his right, he saw the cloud of dirt turn black with smoke.

The man outside yelled again. The waist-high grass near their car was on fire, he told them. They had to get out now.

The stranger helped carefully lift Pam Dawson, 67, out of the car and away from the inferno.

“You felt like you were in a war zone,” Jim Dawson remembered.

Jane Flanders gripped the steering wheel as wind lashed the side of her Hyundai Tucson. Dust blew across the interstate ahead of her, concealing the larger cloud lurking behind it.

Once she realized she couldn’t see the car in front of her, she pulled to the left shoulder and into the dip in the median, hoping to find safety.

She swung her gaze to the right. A truck hurtled past her, pieces of it breaking away and vanishing. Just then, a car crashed into her trunk. The left side of her head bounced off the steering wheel.

Dazed, she called her husband, who told her to get out of the car. Flanders, 58, tried the door. It wouldn’t budge. She kicked at it until she pried it open.

She tried to shield her eyes from the stinging dirt that filled her nostrils and caked on her skin. A few men sprinted toward her.

“It’s gonna blow!” they shouted. “Get out of here.”

Flanders ran back to her car just in time to hear the explosion in the distance. When she realized the collisions were over, she got out of the car, grabbed some belongings and filled a large shopping bag with water bottles to hand out.

She found an unconscious woman in the car behind her, and with the help of another person, got her out of the car and wrapped her in a blanket.

“There was so much chaos,” Flanders said. “People were dazed, confused, bleeding, covered in dirt walking around.”

Growing up in Farmersville, Cambria Underwood was familiar with dust clouds blowing across farm fields. They typically happened in spring, when farmers were out tilling their fields ahead of planting. And they were typically fleeting.

It took 30 seconds, she guessed, to realize this one was different. By then, she flipped on her hazard lights and slowed down, pulling into the grass to avoid a truck stopped in the shoulder.

“We had a split second of peace in the grass,” said Underwood, 22, “and somebody rear-ended me.”

The force was not enough to cause harm to her or the toddler in his car seat. But the impact shattered a strip of laminated glass between the taillights of her Toyota Prius, causing blowing dirt to pour into her car. She tried covering the spot with a blanket, to no avail, then reached for face masks, which were powerless against the onslaught.

As the minutes passed, Underwood started to wonder why police and paramedics hadn’t arrived at what she still thought was a five-car pileup.

The carnage was all behind her, she said, obscured by the dirt cloud.

“I had no clue of any of it.”

‘You don’t understand the severity of the situation’

It was a few minutes before 11 a.m. when Jason Martin heard Divernon firefighters being dispatched to a dust storm and pileup on the interstate.

Martin’s stomach dropped. A month earlier, on April 4, the police chief and his officers shut down a stretch of Illinois Route 104 at the edge of town, just west of the interstate, after a 2-mile-wide dust storm blanketed the road.

No one was injured in April. But if a similar dirt cloud rolled across the interstate, Martin thought, it could be devastating.

That May 1 morning, Martin and another officer drove side-by-side at 10 mph as they breached the wall of dirt. Inside, through a sepia-toned haze, they found people covered in dust, walking, dazed, past the wreckage, or crouched trying to help the injured lying on the ground.

“It was unlike anything I had ever seen in my life,” remembered Martin, 52, a 16-year veteran police officer. “It was just horrendous.”

Martin and other first responders helped stranded motorists on the north side of the accident, handing out masks, assessing the injured and clearing a path for the emergency vehicles that hurried to the scene as word of the mass casualty crash spread across the region.

State police shut down a nearly 20-mile stretch of interstate for the rest of the day and night. More than 30 agencies sent help.

Locals watched in fear and fascination as usually desolate country roads became bustling thoroughfares — emergency vehicles, lights and sirens blaring, rushing toward the crash site, or motorists trying to get around the closed interstate. Some fielded text messages from concerned friends and family asking if they were OK.

In Farmersville, population 689, a soccer field became the designated landing zone for medical helicopters. Over in Divernon, population 1,126, the five-room village hall was converted to headquarters for state police.

In Hillsboro, police Chief Randy Leetham — also the Montgomery County coroner — had been in the office finishing paperwork that morning and was home preparing to take a nap on his 41st birthday when a deputy chief texted him about the crash.

An hour later, Leetham pulled up on the frontage road. Four semi trucks and a car were still on fire in the northbound lanes, as firefighters battled to keep the flames from spreading along diesel-soaked pavement and dry grass.

First responders, some with wet towels wrapped around their faces, ferried injured people out of the dirt storm, which persisted for hours.

Most of the injured survivors were treated at the scene. At least 37 were taken to nearby hospitals, one by helicopter.

Meanwhile, Leetham began the arduous process of identifying the deceased. In some cases, license plates and vehicle identification number tags were gone, so investigators looked for VIN stamps on parts of those cars that hadn’t been destroyed. DNA samples were needed for five of the eight fatal victims.

“It was hard for some of the people not on scene to understand the severity of it,” Leetham said. “They were inquiring: Can’t you tell male from female? Absolutely not. They asked about clothing. It wasn’t an option. What about possible fingerprints? No, you don’t understand the severity of the situation.”

The main number for the coroner goes to the office’s chief deputy, Joletta Hill. That day, the line rang continuously. Many of the calls were from frantic people who said they hadn’t heard from loved ones who had possibly been on the interstate at that time.

“It’s really hard,” said Hill, 64. “You do your best to comfort them and offer assistance in any way you can.”

In the end, authorities identified the seven people who died that day as:

  • Shirley Harper, 88, of Franklin, Wisconsin
  • Michael Zinchuk, 55, and Amy Zinchuk, 54, of Champaign
  • Joseph Bates, 73, and Donna Bates, 71, of Crystal Lake
  • Earl LeGrand, 64, of Florissant, Missouri
  • Otto-Medina-Salazar, 58, of Carthage, Missouri

An eighth victim, Ruth Rau, 81, of Panama, Illinois, died about two weeks later in a Springfield hospital from injuries suffered in the crash.

Authorities eventually reopened the interstate around 6 a.m. the next day, and erected a digital sign near Springfield alerting travelers to watch for high winds and blowing dust. Hours later, state police briefly shut down the interstate again until wind gusts subsided.

Ten days after the crash, the leaders of emergency agencies in the area met to critique the collective response to the pileup and glean any lessons for the future, said Kevin Schott, director of the Montgomery County Emergency Management Agency.

A week later, they held another meeting. This one was for first responders to talk with peers trained in crisis counseling.

Many of the emergency agencies that responded are staffed by volunteers who live in the small towns along the interstate, men and women who walked toward the dust storm knowing they could find a familiar face among the injured and dead.

“Even seasoned veterans, something like this can affect them,” said Schott.

National Weather Service forecasters in the area said they talked to authorities about the agency’s ability to issue dust storm warnings in the future. Though dust storms are hard to detect, NWS offices could issue public advisories to flag to farmers the dry, windy conditions that might lead to dust storms.

“We certainly can get ahead of these with proper analysis of climate conditions,” said NWS Springfield meteorologist Ed Shimon.

Some environmental groups and conservationists, meanwhile, said the state needs to do more to help farmers adopt the types of planting methods that could stop massive amounts of soil from being swept off fields by high winds and heavy rains.

“How could you have prevented that dust?” asked Richard Lyons, 77, a longtime farmer, educator and advocate in the region. “Changing the culture and practices on the land — that’s how.”

‘It’s hard to go back there’

The pavement was still charred across the two northbound lanes of the interstate, a week after the crash. Along the shoulder, the burned grass was still littered with singed gauze wrappers and medical wipes and empty plastic jugs that once held absorbent clay. A dozen sealed barrels containing the diesel-soaked clay, or flammable lithium-ion batteries spilled from one of the semis, still waited to be collected.

Jim and Pam Dawson were eventually taken by ambulance to a Springfield hospital. The next day, surgeons used rods and screws to stabilize her spine. She went home in a back brace and will need a second surgery to repair the torn ligaments in her thumb — the injuries left her unable to attend her brother-in-law’s funeral.

“We’ll get this behind us,” Jim Dawson said. “It’s all you can do.”

Those who didn’t need immediate hospitalization were told to grab what they could carry; they’d be given instructions later for when and where they could pick up their cars and any belongings they couldn’t take with them.

Cambria Underwood and the toddler she had been taking to day care were picked up by the boy’s mother, who managed to get close to the scene using the frontage road. Others, such as Jane Flanders, boarded buses that took them to a truck stop in Divernon. Police and Red Cross staff eventually arrived to interview survivors and help arrange travel home.

Flanders’ niece came and took her to a hospital, where she was treated for a concussion. She left the same day and spent the next four days at her niece’s house, fielding calls from loved ones and state police investigators trying to re-create the exact sequence of events.

In one of the last calls with a state police investigator, she said he asked her why she chose that day to pull her car further into the dip at the center of the median.

“I wanted to get out of the line of fire,” she answered.

“Had you not,” he replied, “you probably wouldn’t be on the phone with me.”

She eventually got a new car through insurance and started the drive home, 570 nerve-wracking miles, each one requiring that she shield her mind from thoughts of what could have been.

“I’m afraid that I’ll fall apart,” she said when asked if she’d stopped to take stock of everything that happened.

“When I talk about it, I talk about it in a business way. I don’t allow myself …” She paused, adding, “I am so grateful I came away basically unscathed.”

To be certain, there were glimpses of humanity amid the carnage. Strangers risked their lives to warn people to escape deadly flames spreading along dry, diesel soaked grass, or to free people trapped in their mangled cars.

In one of those cars sat Megan Metters. The 37-year-old St. Louis resident was on her way home that day when she veered to avoid a collision. Her car spun and then lurched as it was hit by one car, then a second and a third. Her glasses flew from her face.

A man came to pry open her car doors. As she surveyed the wreck, Metters spotted a man whose car was wedged under a semi, its massive back looming inches from his face.

Metters, who works as an adult caregiver, sprung into action. She wrapped his bloodied and likely broken hand in an adult diaper and waited with him while newly arriving paramedics helped people with more severe injuries.

She was eventually taken to the hospital, where doctors said she likely tore her rotator cuff. But her main focus was Harley, the 12-week-old kitten she was forced to leave in a carrier at the crash site. Now, in the emergency room, she called every animal shelter in the area.

No one had him.

The next day, back in St. Louis, Metters continued her search. Eventually, someone from Illinois State Police called. A television reporter who heard a meow while filming near damaged cars found Harley, hungry and clingy but otherwise unharmed.

”Oh my god, thank you! Oh my god. I love you guys. I love you,” Metters said as she began to cry.

For some survivors, though, their relief has been tempered by guilt.

Rita Johnson had been in Missouri the weekend before the crash, watching her sons run their first marathon, and was on her way back home to Bolingbrook that morning.

Johnson pulled her car to the right shoulder and sat, shaking, as she heard the crashes behind her. At any moment, she thought, she’d be the next one hit. She fumbled for her phone and quickly hammered out a text message to her family:

Please pray. I’m scared to death. There’s dust so full. I can’t see anything. I pulled over to the side of the road and trucks and cars are whizzing by but the visibility is zero. Please pray that I don’t get hit.

Johnson’s car was at the northern edge of the crash site. It was one of the few that was not damaged. Still, she left it there and boarded the bus to the Divernon truck stop, where she called her husband to pick her up.

“The first two days were just awful,” said Johnson, 61. She replayed every second in her mind. Why did she escape unharmed, her car undamaged? When the crashes stopped, should she have gone to check on other people? Could she have offered to let them sit in her car to get out of the storm?

“It’s hard to go back there,” she said through tears.

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