Dust storm with ‘zero visibility’ responsible for 20-or-more vehicle crash near Hardin, authorities say
At least five people died after a dust storm driven by 60 mph winds caused a pileup on Interstate 90 in Montana Friday night, authorities said.
At least 20 vehicles crashed. Montana Highway Patrol Sgt Jay Nelson said authorities believed the weather was a factor.
“It looks like there was a strong wind that caused a dust storm with zero visibility,” he said.
The Highway Patrol did not have an immediate number of injuries, but Nelson said additional ambulances had to be called from Billings to assist.
Governor Greg Gianforte said on Twitter: “I am deeply saddened by the news of the mass casualty incident in Hardin. Join me in prayer to lift up the victims and their loved ones. We are grateful to our first responders for their service.”
The incident happened three miles (5 km) west of Hardin.
According to Nick Vertz, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Billings, the dust storm’s roots can be traced back several hours, when storms appeared in south-central Montana between 1:00 and 2:00 p.m. and slowly began to move eastward.
A so-called “outflow,” or wave of wind that is caused by storms but can move faster than them, was flying east-southeast about 30 miles ahead of the storms, Vertz said.
A wind gust of 40 mph was reported at the nearby Big Horn County Airport at 4:15 p.m. The accident was reported to the Highway Patrol at 4:28 p.m.
The airport weather station’s next reading at 4:35 p.m. showed gusts up to 62 miles per hour. Another reading 20 minutes later recorded a gust of 64 mph.
Winds easily picked up the dust — a product of recent temperatures in the 90s Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) and triple digits over the past week — and reduced visibility to less than a quarter mile (0.4 km).
“If they looked at the sky when they were in Hardin, they probably didn’t see much of what you would imagine for a storm cloud, maybe not much,” Vertz said. “It was just a wave of wind that appeared out of nowhere.
As rescuers try to clear the debris, the meteorologist said they can expect to be safe from further winds and storm activity.
“It should be a relatively clear, calm night for them.”