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Sudden dust storm leads to fatal wrecks, fires in Arizona

By Mark Carlson
The Associated Press

PHOENIX — A strong winter storm wreaked havoc in Arizona on Tuesday, leaving at least three people dead and six injured in a series of fiery crashes caused by thick, blowing dust on Interstate 10 and shutting down I-40 for hours with slick conditions. One of the dead was a 25-year-old man whose vehicle was rear-ended by his father’s truck.

The midday I-10 wrecks, about 40 miles south of Phoenix near Casa Grande, left the eastbound lanes littered with the smoldering remains of several big rigs, passenger cars and vans. Both directions of the freeway connecting Tucson to Phoenix were closed for hours as crews freed the injured and dead from the tangled wreckage.

Along 1-40 west of Flagstaff, dozens of cars and trucks were involved in collisions or slid off the highway as snow began falling Tuesday afternoon. A stretch of the highway between Williams and Ash Fork was closed intermittently. Snowy and slippery conditions were also reported on I-17 north of Sedona.

The crashes near Casa Grande and a second set a dozen miles further south near Pichaco were triggered by dust kicked up from nearby farm fields. Dust and thick gray smoke from burning vehicles billowed across the flat sprawl of farms and desert.

In all, 22 vehicles were involved in the crashes, including nine commercial trucks. Authorities said seven people — including three children — were taken to Phoenix hospitals but six were treated and released by Tuesday night. A 69-year-old Casa Grande man remained hospitalized with undisclosed injuries. His condition was not released.

Edgar Ivan Medina Vargas of Iowa City, Iowa, was among those killed. He slowed suddenly because of the dust storm, and his pickup truck was struck from behind by his father’s large commercial truck, said Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Bart Graves.

Also killed were a brother and sister in a Jeep, Mark and Katie Eide of Casa Grande. He was 14 and she was 17, Graves said. Authorities say the siblings were headed to a restaurant at Picacho Peak.

The westbound lanes of I-10 were reopened by mid-afternoon, and the eastbound lanes were reopened by 8 p.m. — about eight hours after the crashes.