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Authorities: At least 1 dead, more than a dozen hurt in Arizona crashes caused by dust storm
PHOENIX (AP) ' A blinding dust storm rolled across the Arizona desert Tuesday, causing three pileups involving dozens of vehicles on a major interstate. One man was killed and at least 15 other people were injured, authorities said.
The first two crashes occurred just after noon as a dust storm suddenly covered Interstate 10 near Picacho, about midway between Phoenix and Tucson. Those collisions involved 16 vehicles and led to the fatality.
Video from news helicopters showed dust roiling over dozens of cars, tractor-trailers and ambulances pulled over or strewn about the highway. Authorities were unable to transport injured motorists by helicopter because of the heavy dust.
"It's pretty chaotic out there," said state Department of Public Safety spokesman Bart Graves.
The third pileup occurred almost two hours later on I-10 just north of Tucson and involved eight vehicles. There were no fatalities in that crash, but two people were in extremely critical condition, Graves said.
Katie Maass, a spokeswoman at University Medical Center in Tucson, said the hospital was treating 10 patients involved in the collisions. Three were listed as critical and the other seven were in serious condition.
Authorities closed the interstate for most of the afternoon and were diverting all traffic onto other roads. Traffic was backed up at least five miles.
Dust storms are common across Arizona during dry and windy conditions, and walls of dust more than a mile high can blanket an area in a matter of seconds, sometimes reducing visibility to zero.
Winds from the southwest were gusting at up to 40 mph throughout Arizona on Tuesday, said Jessica Nolte, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Phoenix.
"These winds have accumulated so much that when they move through the region they start to pick up the dry top soil," she said. "It can be a very rapid development."
The Phoenix area was enveloped in a beige haze for much of the day, obscuring the view of the mountains that surround the metropolitan area.
The winds should taper off Tuesday evening and into Wednesday, Nolte said. Another weather system was expected to move into Arizona on Thursday that Nolte said could generate gusts as strong as Tuesday's.
Nolte said the weather service did not issue a dust storm warning before it occurred but did warn people about the strong winds.
Although it was still early to evaluate the extent of Tuesday's damage, Graves said dust storms have created worse crashes. One in 2009 near Casa Grande caused chain-reaction explosions and fires and killed three people, he said.
"We did not have that, fortunately, in this situation," he said. "While it's sad there's a fatality and it's serious, it could have been a lot worse."
Associated Press writers Mark Carlson and Michelle Price contributed to this report.
Follow Amanda Lee Myers on Twitter at http://twitter.com/AmandaLeeAP.