LANCASTER, Calif. - A blinding sandstorm that caught drivers by surprise caused a 12-car pileup Tuesday on a highway in the high desert north of Los Angeles, killing at least two people and injuring 16, authorities said.

Two victims were in critical condition after the crash that left vehicles scattered across the highway, Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Ron Haralson said.

The crash was reported around 1:40 p.m. during a sandstorm whipped by winds gusting up to 55 mph, the National Weather Service said.

Eight vehicles and four big rigs were involved in the pileup, fire officials said.

"Everybody just came to an abrupt stop. There were people that were speeding and unfortunately I don't know if they made it through or not," Anthony Valdespino told KCAL-TV. "I had lost sight of them."

He said he heard brakes screeching all around him.

"I've never seen dust like that," said Valdespino, who said he drives through the area daily. "I've lived out here most of my life and I've never seen dust that thick like that before."

The accident happened just west of Edwards Air Force Base at the northern edge of Los Angeles County, not far from the site of a fiery truck pileup Friday night in a tunnel on the Interstate 5 freeway. The cause of that crash, which killed three people and injured 10, is still under investigation.

Tuesday's crash left big rigs and passenger cars strewn and bent on the pavement and dirt center divider, according to TV helicopter images.

The weather service issued a dust storm warning for the area Tuesday afternoon, cautioning that blowing dust in the region could reduce visibility to near zero.

"It's not unheard-of for the area to experience a dust storm, but it's not an everyday type of thing," said meteorologist Jaime Meier in the weather service's Oxnard office.

Like the rest of California, the Antelope Valley has been bone-dry this year, receiving less than two inches of rain. The dryness means dirt and sand are not packed down in the ground and are more likely to swirl in the face of strong winds.

"It's just loose and is able to impact visibility just the same way as a blizzard," Meier said.