MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Ill. (WCIA) – Agencies that responded to a massive dust storm on I-55 in May are working together to have a plan if it ever happens again.
The May 1 dust cloud resulted in an 84-vehicle pileup that killed eight people. The Chatham and Litchfield Fire Departments were on the scene, helping people involved in the crash. Litchfield Chief Adam Pennock said the dust made it impossible to see what was going on around him.
May 1 was also Pennock’s first official day as Litchfield Fire Chief.
“They say you never forget your first full time day, but I don’t think I will,” Pennock said.
Strong winds blew dirt from nearby farm fields along the highway, creating zero visibility for drivers and emergency crews.
“It looked like the worst scene you could see out of the movie,” Pennock said. “You didn’t think it was real. You just couldn’t see.”
Officials said the dust storm itself wasn’t that big; around 300 feet, about the size of a football field. But the storm closed down about 17 miles of I-55 north and south for nearly a day. That’s because of the wreckage first responders needed to clear off the interstate. The crashes happened within a two-mile radius.
Dozens of cars smashed into one another and trucks caught on fire. Some vehicles were so badly damaged they were unrecognizable.
“People would just emerge out of the dust, and we don’t really know where they were at when our crews were going car to car,” Pennock said.
With a whiteboard in hand, Pennock was commanding a crew he couldn’t see south of the pileup.
All the while, the Chatham Fire Department was working on the north end. Neither knew the other was even there.
“The other side of the interstate to us, it might as well have been in a different county,” said Chatham Fire Chief Gary Self. “We had no idea what was going on nor did they know what was going on our side.”
The dust storm that caused the devastation was truly unprecedented. The National Weather Service issued the first ever dust storm warning east of the Mississippi River. Crews were not prepared for the unique set of circumstances.
Now, they are trying to make sure they aren’t caught off guard again.
“We have never worked on a plan to work on a large-scale event like this until this came about,” Self said. “Unfortunately, most good plans come from tragedy.”
Part of the focus is on better communication, specifically when the chaos comes right up to the county line.
“As your responders first get on scene, a state trooper will find a firefighter and they will sit down in a clean environment, be it a fire engine, be it a trooper’s car, and say ‘This is what we need. This is what we need to do. This is how we need to do it,’ and set up a structured system to communicate better,” Self said.
In a statement to WCIA, the Illinois State Police (ISP) said, “In situations similar to the May 2023 storm on I-55, we have well established partnerships through the Illinois Department of Transportation for road closures and traffic control and other agencies throughout Illinois for emergency preparedness. We conduct interagency trainings to test and refine our readiness and are prepared to respond as needed.”
Self said it’s also about knowing what resources each agency can provide and how they can help if another tragedy of this scale happens in the future.
“We learned that post-call, because during the call, everybody responded,” Self said. “We didn’t know who was there, we didn’t know what was being done.”
Sangamon County is upgrading its radio system. The plan was in the works before the I-55 dust storm crash, but Self said it will help keep all first responders up to speed on a response.
“There’ll be four tower sites as opposed to the singular tower site that we have now throughout the county,” Self said. “That will improve our communications and we will have different channel groups to where we will be able to communicate with Montgomery County and Macoupin County and all counties should we have an incident.
After the crash, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) said they work with other agencies to decide if improvements need to be made to roads after major crashes.
In a statement to WCIA, IDOT said, “Within 48 hours after the crash, IDOT put dura-patch (a process where hot oil is sprayed and gravel is then placed over the hot oil and bonds together) on a couple of small areas, approximately 10 feet, of I-55, where there was some deterioration. An emergency contract was approved to remove and replace damaged facilities and hot mix asphalt was laid for approximately 300 feet a few weeks later.”
For Litchfield, one of the things that came out of the crash is a command vehicle. It has a command center with two radios and allows them to be on different channels and hear what other departments are doing. It’s a way to stay better prepared for any event of the same magnitude moving forward.
“We do have a big interstate, we have trains that run through town carrying only God knows what, and we have to be prepared for massive incidents,” Pennock said.