COALINGA, Calif. -- Investigators combed through mangled cars and big-rigs Saturday looking for what started a massive chain-reaction pileup along Interstate 5 that killed 17 people and hurt 150.
Ninety-three cars and 11 big-rigs slammed into each other Friday when a blinding dust storm cloaked the state's main north-south artery. California Highway Patrol Officer David Sigler said 118 of the 150 people hurt remained hospitalized Saturday.
A section of Interstate 5 was closed for more than 27 hours while officers investigated crash and crews worked to removed the tangled and often charred wreckage from the roadway. The state's main north-south thoroughfare was finally reopened to traffic at 7:15 p.m. Saturday, Sgt. Ted Eichman said.
Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy toured the site Saturday morning, saying it was the worst traffic accident he had ever seen. After being briefed by CHP officials, McCarthy said he was satisfied nothing could have been done to prevent the accident.
'This dust storm occurred in a matter of minutes,' McCarthy said. 'There was no gradual warning here of some buildup, some diminishing loss of visibility.
'The wind got much stronger in a short period of time and combined to create the thickness of the dust storm,' McCarthy said. 'So there was no warning.'
McCarthy said California's 5-year-old drought contributed to one of the worst traffic accidents in California history.
'I think we have to understand that the drought, extended over so many years, was a part of this tragedy,' McCarthy said. 'The strong, 60-mph winds ... combined with the dry soil, produced this very thick, blinding dust storm.'
Investigators worked through Saturday, attempting to determine what was the collision that started the chain-reaction, but many of the vehicles were burned beyond recognition.
'We have five clusters of vehicles,' Sigler said. 'Four of them were located on the southbound side and the other one was on the northbound side.'
Officials said the crash in the northbound lane involved 20 vehicles and another cluster in the southbound lanes contained 19 vehicles.
'There may have been more vehicles invovled than we know about,' Sigler said.
'Some people were involved in minor property damage only, exchanged information, drove home and (then) called their local CHP office to make a report,' he said.
Witnesses said the swirling dust cut visibility to zero, setting off the mammoth smashup in the southbound lanes about 30 miles north of Coalinga in central California's San Joaquin Valley.
'All of a sudden, 'bang, bang, bang.' It happened like that,' one witness said.
A 4-mile stretch of both sides of the roadway was littered with wreckage and burned out hulks of cars, trucks and motorhomes. Wreckers moved in at dawn Saturday to haul away the mangled cars.
The accident initially forced the California Highway Patrol to close more than 100 miles of I-5. It took nearly four hours for rescue crews to remove all the injured from the wreckage littering the highway.
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 Fresno hospitals, officials said. Less seriously injured were treated at the scene and put aboard buses for the ride to Coalinga and Fresno hospitals.