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Not normal: dust cloud envelopes I-90 and causes fatal pileup

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'Mass casualty' crash on I90 near Hardin closes interstate

First responders work the scene after a 'mass casualty' crash on I90 near Hardin closed the interstate on Friday evening. According to the Montana Department of Transportation incident map, the wrecks occurred about 4:50 p.m. causing the closure both eastbound lanes in Bighorn County. Traffic was backed up for several miles according to reports. The MDT website said all eastbound traffic was being diverted onto Old Highway 87 at mile marker 484 into Hardin.

A black cloud of dust swallowed a portion of Interstate 90 west of Hardin on Friday, blinding drivers and causing a massive, deadly pileup.

At least six people died, and eight were taken to nearby hospitals. Traffic was flowing normally by Saturday morning, and crews had cleared away all 21 wrecked vehicles.

“I can tell you as a native Montanan with 24 years with Montana Highway Patrol that this was not a normal weather occurrence,” said MHP Public Information Officer Sgt. Jay Nelson.

'Mass casualty' crash on I90 near Hardin closes interstate

The side of a fifth wheel camper sits in pieces on the interstate after a 'mass casualty' crash on I90 near Hardin closed the interstate on Friday evening. According to the Montana Department of Transportation incident map, the wrecks occurred about 4:50 p.m. causing the closure both eastbound lanes in Bighorn County. Traffic was backed up for several miles according to reports. The MDT website said all eastbound traffic was being diverted onto Old Highway 87 at mile marker 484 into Hardin.

First responders converged on the interstate near mile marker 494, about three miles outside Hardin at around 5 p.m. High winds had carried a wall of dust into the area that brought visibility to zero. Although investigators with MHP are still trying to determine the specifics of the ensuing chaos, vehicles caught in the pileup included passenger cars, SUVS and six semi-trucks.

Traffic traveling in both directions was backed up for several miles while ambulance crews pulled the injured from their vehicles. Nelson said of the six confirmed dead, two were juveniles. By 11 p.m., the interstate was cleared and all of its lanes opened. The pileup garnered national attention, with state and congressional leaders sharing their condolences for those killed or hurt.

Pileups have happened along I-90 in central and southeastern Montana, however, they typically happen in the winter months due to icy roads and blizzard conditions. In Feb. 2021, about 30 vehicles slid into one another on I-90 outside of Billings. The pileup was one of the largest seen by some officials and put several people in the hospital. During the warmer months, the main threats to Montana drivers are speeding and driving under the influence.

'Mass casualty' crash on I90 near Hardin closes interstate

First responders work the scene after a 'mass casualty' crash on I90 near Hardin closed the interstate on Friday evening. According to the Montana Department of Transportation incident map, the wrecks occurred about 4:50 p.m. causing the closure both eastbound lanes in Bighorn County. Traffic was backed up for several miles according to reports. The MDT website said all eastbound traffic was being diverted onto Old Highway 87 at mile marker 484 into Hardin.

“Do we have dust storms? Yes, we do. But they’re usually short-lived, and not ones that produce zero visibility for over a mile,” Nelson said.

A thunderstorm produced westbound winds Friday afternoon, Warning Coordination Meteorologist Cory Mottice said. It’s unknown where those winds gathered so much dust, but around 4:30 they were blowing between 40 and 50 mph outside of Hardin and visibility had dropped to less than a quarter of a mile.

The wind continued to coat the interstate with dust for about an hour, and the storm didn’t bring any rain until around 6. The Hardin Airport tracked wind gusts of up to 62 mph. Mottice, who is with the National Weather Service in Billings, said a trained weather spotter five miles north of the pileup reported winds gusting up to 76 mph.

“I can’t really say how rare or common it is that we get a dust storm to that extent. It is more likely to get something like yesterday when we have a significant drought, but we’ve kind of gotten out of our drought conditions with all the precipitation lately,” Mottice said.

The onset of dust storms like the one that blasted the interstate outside of Hardin on Friday, Mottice said, can be instantaneous.

'Mass casualty' crash on I90 near Hardin closes interstate

Trucks back up for miles after a 'mass casualty' crash on I90 near Hardin closed the interstate on Friday evening. According to the Montana Department of Transportation incident map, the wrecks occurred about 4:50 p.m. causing the closure both eastbound lanes in Bighorn County. Traffic was backed up for several miles according to reports. The MDT website said all eastbound traffic was being diverted onto Old Highway 87 at mile marker 484 into Hardin.

Kim White, a Hardin resident for the past 20 years, watched the dust storm roll over the intestate from her home. With how dark the cloud was, she couldn’t tell if it made of dust, rain or smoke. White, who was caught in a cloud of dust several years prior while traveling on a highway from Miles City, said recent thunderstorms near Hardin had brought plenty of wind, but no rain.

'Mass casualty' crash on I90 near Hardin closes interstate

First responders work the scene after a 'mass casualty' crash on I90 near Hardin closed the interstate on Friday evening. According to the Montana Department of Transportation incident map, the wrecks occurred about 4:50 p.m. causing the closure both eastbound lanes in Bighorn County. Traffic was backed up for several miles according to reports. The MDT website said all eastbound traffic was being diverted onto Old Highway 87 at mile marker 484 into Hardin.

Sgt. Nelson said an update on the investigation into Friday’s pileup would likely be available Monday. Personnel with Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office and ambulance services, along with deputies with Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office were among those assisting MHP in responding to the crash.

At least 81 people have died on Montana's roads so far in 2022, according to MHP data. Despite a recent rise in fatal crashes over the Fourth of July weekend, deaths are down compared to this same time in 2021 and 2020. 

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