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3 killed in Picacho dust storm; I-10 closed after 19-vehicle pileup

Three people were killed Tuesday in a series of crashes near Picacho Peak caused by blowing dust, according to authorities. The westbound lanes of the highway were closed for nearly 12 hours, as were two of the eastbound lanes. A dozen people were reported injured, with 21 vehicles involved in the crashes.

George Lee Smith, 76, of Mead, Wash., was the first crash fatality to be identified by authorities. Department of Public Safety officials said Smith's wife was among those injured.

The others killed were identified as David D. Bechtel, 51, of Milton, Iowa, and Lenny Lubers, 46, of Phoenix.

The three died in a 19-vehicle pileup that included semi-trucks and passenger cars traveling westbound. Involved in the crash, which took place during a dust storm with "little to zero visibility for drivers," were 10 commercial vehicles, a tanker truck, an RV and seven passenger vehicles, DPS said.

Just after noon on Tuesday, "high winds started blowing thick brown dust into the air in a western direction across Interstate 10 just north of Picacho Peak. The interstate runs north and south in that area," DPS said.

A second, two-vehicle crash occurred nearby in the eastbound lanes of the interstate, "involved minor injuries and a commercial vehicle," DPS said.

The dozen hurt in the crashes had injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening, DPS said. The injured were transported by helicopter and ambulance to various hospitals, including the University of Arizona Medical Center, St. Joseph's Hospital and Good Samaritan Hospital.

Airmen from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base were on the scene. From DPS:

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Members of the United States Air Force 48th Rescue Squadron were among those providing initial care to the injured motorists. The squadron happened to be traveling through the area at the time of the dust storm and, following the collisions, they were able to triage and provided critical medical care to the majority of the patients on scene. Members of the squadron also coordinated the on-scene approach and departure of the three responding medical helicopters.

Travel on the interstate was restricted until about 11 p.m., DPS said.

Tuesday, the National Weather Service issued a dust-storm warning for the area around 1 p.m., effective until 3 p.m. A blowing dust advisory was in effect until 6 p.m.

Winds of 20-30 mph were expected, with higher gusts reducing visibility to a quarter-mile in areas of blowing dust during the afternoon, NWS said.

Dusty driving tips

ADOT and the Arizona Department of Public Safety reminded drivers of these tips when encountering a low-visibility dust storm:

  • Avoid driving into or through a dust storm.
  • If you encounter a dust storm, check traffic immediately around your vehicle (front, back and to the side) and begin slowing down.
  • Do not wait until poor visibility makes it difficult to safely pull off the roadway — do it as soon as possible. Completely exit the highway if you can, away from where other vehicles may travel.
  • Do not stop in a travel lane or in the emergency lane; look for a safe place to pull completely off the paved portion of the roadway.
  • Turn off all vehicle lights, including your emergency flashers.
  • Set your emergency brake and take your foot off the brake.
  • Stay in the vehicle with your seatbelts buckled and wait for the storm to pass.
  • Drivers of high-profile vehicles should be especially aware of changing weather conditions and travel at reduced speeds.
  • Be alert that any storm can cause power outages to overhead roadway lighting and traffic signals. Drive with caution and treat all intersections without signals as having stop signs in all directions.
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2 comments on this story

Oct 31, 2013, 8:58 am
-0 +0

I was attending to some business when this hit. Usually, when I am on the Twin Peaks bridge I look to the north and can see Picacho Peak. Tuesday, that wasn’t the case. So, it was nasty.

I had a miserable experience with the storm…when it rolled through the north side I was at the Tangerine Landfill. Yuck!

Oct 29, 2013, 9:07 pm
-3 +5

Why don’t they close the highway at Picacho when winds of 30 mph are predicted? Or set up a pilot car system to lead people through slowly until the weather clears? It’s so stupid and cruel to let people have accidents and die when they can prevent it. The freeway is closed indefinitely now because of the accidents; what’s the problem with closing it before someone has an accident?

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Click image to enlarge


One of the crashes Tuesday near Picacho Peak.