High Winds, Mass of Dust, Then a 21-Vehicle Crash

6 are dead after dust storm Friday on Montana interstate
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jul 16, 2022 8:30 AM CDT
6 Dead After Dust Storm Leads to 21-Vehicle Pileup
Traffic is backed up on Interstate 90 after a fatal pileup where at least 20 vehicles crashed near Hardin, Mont., on Friday.   (Amy Lynn Nelson/The Billings Gazette via AP)

Six people have died after a dust storm fueled by wind gusts topping 60mph caused a pileup Friday evening on Interstate 90 in Montana, authorities said. Twenty-one vehicles crashed, and Montana Highway Patrol Sgt. Jay Nelson said authorities believe the weather was the cause. "It appears as though there was heavy winds, causing a dust storm with zero visibility," he said, per the AP. While the MHP didn't have an immediate count of the number of injuries, Nelson said additional ambulances had to be called in from Billings to help. The incident happened 3 miles west of Hardin. A video from the Billings Gazette showed hundreds of tractor-trailers, campers, and cars backed up for miles along the two eastbound lanes of the interstate.

The dust storm's roots can be traced back several hours, when storms popped up in central-southern Montana between 1pm and 2pm and slowly began moving east, according to Nick Vertz, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Billings. Those storms prompted a severe thunderstorm watch that covered Hardin and other parts of Montana from mid-afternoon until 9pm Friday. Meteorologists forecasted the potential for isolated hail the size of a quarter, scattered wind gusts up to 75mph, and frequent lightning. A so-called "outflow"—or a surge of wind that's produced by storms but can travel faster than them—flew east/southeast about 30 miles ahead of the storms, Vertz said. A 40mph gust of wind was recorded at the nearby Big Horn County Airport at 4:15pm. The crash was reported to the highway patrol at 4:28pm.

By the airport weather station's next reading at 4:35pm, the gusts had picked up to 62mph. Another reading 20 minutes later recorded a gust of 64mph. The wind easily picked up dust—a product of recent temperatures into the 90s and triple digits over the last week—and reduced visibility to less than a quarter mile. "If they looked up in the sky while they're in Hardin, they probably didn't see much of what you'd think of for a thunderstorm cloud, maybe not even much at all," Vertz said. "It was just a surge of wind that kind of appeared out of nowhere." Gov. Greg Gianforte posted on Twitter: "I'm deeply saddened by the news of a mass casualty crash near Hardin. Please join me in prayer to lift up the victims and their loved ones. We're grateful to our first responders for their service."

(Read more Montana stories.)

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