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Pileup kills at least eight

COALINGA, Calif. -- More than 100 cars and big-rig trucks slammed into each other in a blinding dust storm Friday on Interstate 5, creating a massive pilup that killed at least eight people and injured more than 100.

The dust storm forced the CHP to close more than 100 miles of California's main north-south highway.

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Eight people were confirmed dead as of 5 p.m., Fresno County Sheriff's Lt. Donald Burk said.

'The word I have from officers is that there are still dead in vehicles,' he said. 'They just couldn't get to them yet.'

More than 100 people were injured in the massive pileup that occurred when winds gusting to 45 mph blew dust from drought-parched farm fields into a blinding storm about 2:30 p.m. Friday.

'(The field alongside the highway) wasn't planted over the last year because they didn't have water, so when the winds hit it blew all that topsoil into a dustbowl,' Burk said.

The swirling dust cut visibility to zero, setting off a chain- reaction collision in the southbound lanes that clogged the state's main north-south route about 30 miles north of Coalinga in central California's San Joaquin Valley, CHP Officer David Sigler said.

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The collision was reported at 2:42 p.m. and three hours later, rescue crews were still removing injured from the wreckage littering the highway in a scene reminiscent of the Persian Gulf war footage showing wrecked Iraqi vehicles along the desert roads.

The injured were taken to a triage area about a mile east of the freeway where there was no blowing dust because the area had been planted during the last year.

The most seriously injured were taken by helicopter to hospitals in Fresno and Coalinga, Burk said.

'We're closing Interstate 5,' a California Highway Patrol spokesman said.

'We're having Los Banos in Merced County close it on their end and we're having Bakersfield close it on the south end.'

Officials said the weather forecast called for continued high winds for the next 24 hours and estimated that more than 100 miles of Interstate 5 would remain closed to traffic for the duration of the storm.

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