Video posted on social media showed vehicles scattered across the interstate, including an 18-wheeler that appeared to hit the vehicle or veer into the middle.
Authorities believe a “rapidly generated dust storm” ultimately led to the accident. “It looked as if there were high winds that caused a dust storm with zero visibility,” Nelson said.
The National Weather Service’s summary of the storm showed wind gusts of up to 64 mph in Harding around 4 p.m. local time Friday.
The names and ages of the deceased had not been released as of early Saturday. Authorities said people were also injured in the crash, but did not give exact numbers.
Montana Governor Greg Gianforte (R) wrote on Twitter that he was “deeply saddened by the news of the mass casualty incident near Harding.”
“Please join me in prayers for the victims and their loved ones,” he wrote. “We appreciate the service of our first responders.”
I am deeply saddened by the news of the mass casualty incident near Harding. Please join me in prayer to lift victims and their loved ones. We appreciate the service of our first responders.
— Governor Greg Gianforte (@GovGianforte) July 16, 2022
Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen (right), who oversees the Montana Highway Patrol, said in a statement on Facebook that the agency and first responders were investigating the incident.
“Out of respect for the lives and loved ones lost, we will release additional information as it becomes available and is appropriate,” Knudsen said. “My prayers are with everyone affected by the tragic events during the dust storm in Bighorn County today. together.”
Thunderstorms triggered strong wind warnings in the Billings area on Friday afternoon, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. On Friday, the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning and warning for south-central and southeastern Montana.
The storm produced rough winds called outflows that were sent to Harding. In addition to wind gusts, meteorologists also forecast potential isolated quarter hail and frequent lightning strikes.
“This outflow is not visible on radar, so take appropriate action now and prepare for the weather!” the National Weather Service tweeted.
Strong winds from the outflow are likely to affect SE MT and parts of Sheridan County, Wyoming over the next few hours. This outflow is not visible on the radar, so take appropriate action now to prepare for the weather! #mtwx #wywx pic.twitter.com/KQMr1Q8VWX
— NWS Billings (@NWSBillings) July 15, 2022
The crash began around 4:50 p.m. local time Friday, according to an accident map from the Montana Department of Transportation. Eastbound traffic on I-90 was closed for several hours, and westbound interstate was reduced to one lane.
Winds of this nature can easily pick up dust and can quickly make visibility difficult, Billings Weather Service meteorologist Nick Wertz told The Associated Press.
“If they’re looking up at the sky while they’re in Harding, they might not see your view of a thunderstorm cloud, or they might not even see it at all,” Vertz said. “It’s that gust of wind that comes from nowhere.”