Witness of Winnemucca dust storm crash: ‘I walked into the fast lane …’

by NATASHA VITALE

Photo by Nevada Highway Patrol

Photo by Nevada Highway Patrol

A Sparks motorist who was caught in the blinding dust storm in Winnemucca recounted Tuesday how he narrowly avoided being part of the 27-vehicle chain-reaction pileup on Interstate 80 that left one person dead, dozens injured and the highway closed in both directions for almost 24 hours.

Gene Garate, a 41-year-old sleep technician, said he had been driving east on I-80 when the dust storm descended, cloaking the region and reducing visibility to zero. He said he pulled off the road as soon as he could — and he was one of the lucky ones.

“The wind picked up at that minute, and traffic was still going about 70-80 mph,” Garate said. “Two trucks rear-ended, which caused other cars to stack up behind them. I just sat there and watched the traffic get smashed for 15 to 20 seconds.”

Chicago resident Ravi Dyer, 51, was killed when his truck rear-ended another commercial vehicle in the zero-visibility conditions, according to the Nevada Highway Patrol. Two other trucks hit his from behind, seriously injuring his passenger.

Humboldt General Hospital spokeswoman Nicole Maher said 26 people were treated at the hospital, including three in critical condition who were later transferred to a Reno hospital. Drivers reported “near-apocalyptic” conditions Monday evening, according to hospital officials. A mine rescue crew also assisted, and a charter bus was used to transport victims who were not injured.

After the crash, Garate described the area as being so thick with dust that when he opened his car door to get some clothing for an injured person, everything in his car was covered in dust.

“I walked into the fast lane and couldn’t see vehicles until they were 20 feet in front of me,” Garate said. “I couldn’t see headlights or taillights.”

He said he stayed for three hours, helping pull people out of vehicles along with Nevada Highway Patrol troopers.

Garate said that he saw high-wind advisory signs on eastbound I-80, but no warnings of a dust storm.

“It’s a miracle that only one person died,” Garate said. “Seeing the cars being crushed and how thick the dust was in the air, it’s miraculous.”

Photo by Nevada Highway Patrol

Photo by Nevada Highway Patrol

Scott Magruder, public information officer for the Nevada Department of Transportation, noted that the Winnemucca area is prone to wind but not dust. He said authorities will be looking into posting additional signs warning of hazardous conditions for the area.

Dust storms can’t be predicted, but the conditions that can spawn them can be, according to Greg Barnhart, meteorologist in charge of the Elko office of National Weather Service.

Thunderstorms, rain and wind — all of which occurred Monday afternoon in Northern Nevada — spawned this particular dust storm in the Carson Sink area. Winds carried the storm from west to east at about 40 mph, Barnhart said.

“Whenever you see a thunderstorm, be aware that you’re going to have reduced visibility due to dust being picked up by wind,” Barnhart said. “The best action you can take is to pull over and not try to drive through the storm.”

Technology might be able to help give motorists warning. The University of Arizona, located in another dry Southwestern state that experiences blinding dust storms, has developed an iPhone app that can provide a warning of an impending twister. The free app detects the user’s location and can also warn of other types of storms.

This article was also published here through our journalism partnership with RGJ Media



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