Nebraska driver recounts fearful first minutes in blinding I-80 dust storm

Nebraska driver recounts fearful first minutes in blinding I-80 dust storm
Nebraska State Patrol

Jaimi Riley noticed brake lights ahead and then grew fearful as thick dust enveloped her family’s car Sunday.

The Nebraska woman was among drivers caught in a thick dust storm that led to a pileup on Interstate 80 west of York. The pileup, involving 29 vehicles, resulted in one death and sent more than a dozen people to area hospitals.

Riley wasn’t involved in the pileup, but said it happened just ahead of her.

She and her husband and their 10-year-old son were returning home west to Gothenburg, Nebraska, about 5 p.m. after spending the day in York where her son’s baseball team played in a tournament.

Riley was behind the wheel and turned on her flashing hazard lights as she saw traffic slowing down ahead.

Then thick dust surrounded the family’s Chrysler sedan.

“I was thinking, ‘What’s ahead of me, what am I going to run into?'” she said.

As she slowed down, she glanced at her rear-view mirror and saw a semitrailer truck behind her and hoped the driver spotted her hazard lights.

“I was absolutely worried that no one is going to see anybody, and it would keep piling up,” she said.

One of the many tow truck drivers who responded to the scene Sunday described the dust cloud he encountered as “a total blackout.”

“You couldn’t see through it,” said Tyler Buettner, a driver for Aurora Towing. “It was probably eight to 10 stories tall, and at least 80 yards wide.”

“One of our guys ran a tow truck in Iraq. He said it was a lot like Iraq, just dirt instead of sand,” Buettner said.

Dirt covered the faces of drivers and got in people’s eyes, mouth, ears and nose, he said. Afterward, Buettner said, it took two hours to clean out the trucks.

Buettner said he used his heavy tow truck to pull a semitrailer truck off a small sedan.

“It’s just crazy how much carnage was there,” he said. “I’ve been driving a long time. It’s probably one of the worst pileups we’ve ever seen.”

Aaron Mangels, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Hastings, said conditions were prime Sunday for a dangerous dust storm.

Dry weather is key, and early spring tends to be a dry period, he said. Plus, the York area is 2 inches below normal for precipitation so far this year.

Typically, he said, wind gusts of 50 to 60 mph are needed, and gusts in the area where the pileup occurred were nearly that high — more than 45 mph.

Mangels said such wind gusts blowing across a tilled field in dry conditions are strong enough to create a dust storm.

“It definitely takes a lot less wind to move dirt (that’s) tilled up,” he said.

State Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson said he farms right next to the field where the crashes occurred, just west of the Hampton interchange on Interstate 80.

Friesen said conditions in the field contributed to the large amount of dust — rows are planted north-south there, and the field was planted to soybeans last year, leaving less plant debris to hold down the soil.

Springtime dust storms aren’t uncommon, Friesen said, but they may be less common now that farmers are using more soil-preservation techniques, such as no-till farming.

“Right now, that dirt is so fine on top, the wind picks it up, it’s like a sand storm,” Friesen said.

With their car stopped in a westbound traffic lane on I-80, Riley and her husband wondered if they should leave their car and try walking to safety. But they decided against it because they figured the thick dust would make it difficult to breathe. They especially worried about taking their son out into the storm.

They saw several vehicles in the westbound lanes cut through the median and then head back east, trying to escape the dust storm.

Another driver, Joe Herrod of Lincoln, said he was headed east through the wall of heavy dust Sunday afternoon on a return trip from the Paxton area. As he was approaching the area, he noted that the thickest dust was coming from behind a tractor that was working a field.

“I hit it and thought, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t see a thing,’” he said, estimating that he passed through the zero-visibility stretch in a few seconds. Visibility remained poor for a longer section of the highway, he said, as the wind carried dust from the soil that had been disturbed by the farm equipment.

Riley said her family spent two hours stopped on I-80, running the air conditioner and cracking a window occasionally to stay cool on the warm spring day. The dashboard of their car became coated in dust.

Finally, the westbound lanes opened. As Riley drove west, she saw banged-up vehicles along the side of the Interstate just a couple hundred feet ahead of where the family had been stopped.

She said she had tears in her eyes as she realized how close her family had come to becoming part of the deadly pileup.

Friesen, who farms near the crash site, said that on Monday, a friend drove through the same area, and the dust still was blowing “pretty bad.” But it wasn’t as bad as it was Sunday because the farmer is running his center pivot irrigation unit to wet the ground.

“He started his pivot immediately (on Sunday),” Friesen said. “I know he hates this happening.”

World-Herald staff writer Joe Duggan contributed to this report.

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