Twenty-seven vehicles slammed into one another during a sandstorm Monday evening that blinded drivers on Interstate 80 in rural northern Nevada, killing a truck driver, seriously injuring several other people and sapping already thin emergency resources, officials said.
Humboldt County sheriff's dispatchers called in virtually every medical, law enforcement and fire worker in the sparsely populated area after drivers reported "near-apocalyptic" conditions on I-80 at Winnemucca, according to officials at Humboldt General Hospital there. A mine rescue crew also assisted, and a charter bus was used to transport people who were uninjured.
"It was kind of surreal," said Jared Oscarson, captain of clinical services at the hospital, describing a curtain of blowing dirt that at times hid the crash scene from rescuers' sight. "There was kind of just chaos and destruction everywhere."
The pileup shut down the east-west corridor, a major trucking route, into Tuesday as crews worked to clear the scene of wrecked vehicles and debris.
Chicago resident Ravi Dyer, 51, was killed when his truck rear-ended another commercial vehicle in the zero-visibility conditions, the Nevada Highway Patrol said. Two other trucks hit his from behind, seriously injuring his passenger.
Humboldt General Hospital spokeswoman Nicole Maher said 26 people were treated at the hospital, including three in critical condition who were later transferred to a hospital in much-larger Reno, about 160 miles away.
High winds at about 5 p.m. whipped up dust - possibly loose from recently cleared fields - and created conditions like a whiteout, authorities said. Vehicles, including tractor-trailers, cars and a tow truck, piled up in both directions.
Authorities quickly shut down a 3-mile stretch of highway to prevent any other vehicles from driving into the pile. One side of the interstate reopened after 19 hours, while the other remained closed until Tuesday afternoon.
Images from the scene showed crunched-up vehicles, at least one overturned SUV and damaged big rigs with their loads spilling onto the road. Maher said Tuesday that it took about 3 1/2 hours to extricate one person from a vehicle.
Hospital officials said the emergency response included some unusual helpers. The Winnemucca Police Department brought in a police transport vehicle, and the Coach America charter bus company was enlisted to shuttle people away.
A gold mine rescue crew from Newmont Mining Corp. assisted, Maher said, along with the entire emergency room and operating room teams at the 52-bed Winnemucca hospital.
Incident Commander Ken Whittaker also praised officials from Humboldt County who brought in water trucks and helped quell the choking brown dust so emergency crews could help the victims.