This summer, the wind blew huge dust storms and tragic memories through Casa Grande.

"Every time the dust storms came, it seemed somebody would say, 'It made me think of the Eides and what happened to them,'" said Casa Grande resident Donna McBride.

On Dec. 22, 2009, three people died in a 22-vehicle crash on Interstate 10 near Casa Grande during a dust storm.

Two were local teenagers - Katie Eide, 16, and her brother Mark Zackary Eide, 14. Katie Eide was driving Mark to Dairy Queen, where he was meeting friends for a winter-break sleepover.

The third victim was Edgar Ivan Medina-Vargas, 25, who was driving from Phoenix to El Paso in a pickup truck, followed by his father in a semitrailer cab. Medina-Vargas was killed when his pickup was sandwiched between a semi-truck ahead of him and the truck driven by his father, Refugio, Department of Public Safety reports on the crash said.

Dust storms were not expected at the time of the 11 a.m. crash, said atmospheric scientist William Sprigg, who pairs satellite photos of exposed terrain with weather models to produce dust-storm forecasts.

Sprigg ran post-crash models for that stretch of Interstate 10 and was puzzled by the timing. His models said the dust storms would come midafternoon.

But by 11 a.m. that day, wind speeds at nearby Casa Grande Airport were 20 mph - not high enough to lift a dust cloud from undisturbed land but high enough to lift dust from 80 acres of recently cleared land.

That was the initial assessment of Don Gabrielson, director of the Pinal County Air Quality District.

His memorandum of proposed action against Joe Auza Sheep Co. says Auza failed to take "reasonable precautions" to stabilize the area.

"As a direct result of those failures, modest winds resulted in dense clouds of dust that obscured visibility on I-10. The visibility impairment directly resulted in a serious traffic accident on I-10 in which three people were killed."

Reasonable precautions

Ken Waters, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Phoenix, said he looked at the weather conditions that morning to determine if his office should have issued a warning. He came to a similar conclusion.

"That morning, we didn't have anything that would have triggered alarm bells," he said.

Gabrielson and his inspectors began their investigation on the day of the accident, after watching video taken from a helicopter by KPNX TV Channel 12 in Phoenix.

According to Gabrielson's memo, the video showed a dust cloud blowing from four 20-acre parcels, one of which was directly adjacent to Interstate 10.

On Aug. 18, 2010, Joe Auza Sheep Co. was served with a notice of violation for "failing to take reasonable precautions" to prevent the blowing dust.

Joe Auza, president of the company, ultimately signed a consent agreement under which he was fined $10,000 for clearing land without obtaining a dust permit. He admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement, completed in February of this year.

Pinal County inspectors visited the site on Jan. 6 and reported: "What appeared to be agricultural equipment was operating on the parcels, producing copious clouds of dust. Winds were gentle, but activity-generated dust was drifting across I-10."

Auza did not return a telephone call seeking comment on the incident. His attorney, Roger Ferland of Quarles & Brady in Phoenix, said he did not have permission from his client to talk about the particulars of the incident, but said satellite photos showed the storm that day was a regional one.

Field "blowing away"

Farmers can be cited by air-quality regulators for allowing dust to escape their fields and feedlots, but regulation of farming practices was given to the state Department of Agriculture by the Legislature.

"Agriculture is a huge factor in dust pollution and we still have the fox guarding the henhouse and we're still doing very little," said Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr.

State air quality director Eric Massey said the state does require farmers and ranchers to keep a record of their "best management practices" in areas that are ordered by the EPA to limit dust pollution, a menu of choices ranging from using transgenic crops that require fewer passes of farm equipment in the fields to refraining from tilling when the wind is blowing at 25 mph or higher.

Most farmers employ best practices even without regulation, said Rusty Van Leuven, who heads a state Agriculture Department program that helps farmers voluntarily comply with the rules.

Danger areas

The areas that account for the bulk of Arizona's dust-related accidents are mostly agricultural.

Crashes recur on two stretches of Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix - from just south of the Gila River to the town of Picacho (mileposts 175-215) and in a stretch north of Red Rock, where a 10-car pileup last month claimed the life of an infant from Glendale.

There are also danger areas on state routes throughout the Pinal County agricultural belt, ADOT spokesman Dustin Krugel wrote in an email. Dust-related accidents make up a small portion of traffic fatalities in the state. But in the past decade, 36 people have died in them.

That December 2009 crash still haunts Casa Grande.

"It had a really big impact," said McBride, adviser to the Casa Grande Youth Commission, which is planning a "Sunshine" garden to honor young people who have died in Casa Grande.

Mark Eide was nicknamed "Sunshine" because his long blond curls stuck out from his football helmet like the quarterback in the movie "Remember the Titans."

On the night before she died, Katie Eide and two girlfriends made Christmas cookies while mom, Sandie, worked a night shift as a respiratory therapist.

That morning, the kids brought Sandie cookies in bed and Mark climbed under the covers to show her some optical illusions he had downloaded on his cellphone.

Sandie Eide has nearly stopped trying to affix blame. "You can go crazy trying to find somebody responsible," she said.

Maybe those fields should have been watered, she said, "but hindsight is 20-20."

She and husband, Mark, withdrew from a lawsuit that is trying to affix proportional blame for the crash.

"If the kids had just gotten hurt and I could have paid for better treatment or something, I'd do it. But there is nothing anybody can give me," she said.

She has blamed herself for letting her daughter drive on the freeway and the driver of the truck that hit her daughter's car and the bystanders who didn't get her kids out before the car burned up.

She blamed God.

"I have never prayed for money and I have never prayed to be happy. I only prayed to keep my kids safe and healthy and I feel like he let me down."

Warning system in use east of Willcox

The Arizona Department of Transportation has developed a prototype sensing-and-warning system along a notorious stretch of Interstate-10 - east of Willcox to the New Mexico state line.

There, dry lake beds combine with farm fields to produce a ready supply of dust, said Mike Harmon, ADOT engineer for the Safford district.

ADOT has added four more sensors to two that have long been in place near Bowie and San Simon, said Mike Harmon, ADOT engineer for the Safford district. The agency also added cameras that let engineers see dust storms forming, Harmon said.

The monitors will help highway workers and the Department of Public Safety decide when to detour traffic or lower the speed limit, Harmon said.

In those cases, dust-warning signs will flash. Electronic message boards and the emergency radio channel will warn motorists of reduced visibility.

Strategies that work best can be deployed along other troublesome stretches of Interstate 10, as well as I-8 and I-40.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158