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GREAT FALLS — Alkali dust driven by strong winds created whiteout conditions on Interstate 15, leading to four crashes involving nine vehicles that killed a Shelby woman, the Montana Highway Patrol said.

The series of accidents started at about 3:30 p.m. Monday when a tractor-trailer rear-ended another semi that had slowed when it entered the dust storm about a mile south of Sunburst. One of the trucks pulled off the road and the other stopped in the passing lane, said Trooper Mike Jensen.

A 55-year-old Shelby woman slowed as she approached the dust storm and was rear-ended by a semi traveling at least 55 mph, Jensen said. Her name hasn't been released.

The third crash involved a pickup driven by a Mississippi man rear-ending the tractor-trailer that was stopped in the passing lane. The pickup driver was being treated at a Great Falls hospital for chest injuries and a broken leg, Jensen said.

The final crash happened when a Sunburst school van rear-ended a responding ambulance and then went off the road and struck a car that had pulled over. The ambulance driver needed stitches to close a wound on her head and was sore, Jensen said.

Jensen said he didn't know the extent of the injuries suffered by the students in the van, but Superintendent Tim Tharp told the Great Falls Tribune none of the students was seriously injured.

The National Weather Service said winds were gusting up to 45 mph in the Sunburst area Monday afternoon.

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