Police said two men died and 59 people were hurt in a predawn pileup of about 40 vehicles that closed heavily trafficked Interstate 10 in eastern New Orleans through rush hour and beyond.

Officer Garry Flot said 22 people were taken to hospitals with minor to critical injuries, and another 37 refused treatment for minor injuries after the wrecks happened at about 4 a.m. on Thursday. He said a firefighter was injured while working at the scene.

Flot said the crash took place on the westbound lanes heading toward the city's business district and involved a wide variety of vehicles.

Both westbound and eastbound lanes were closed to permit emergency vehicles to access the area, and traffic was detoured off the highway.

Police are investigating what caused the pileup, including whether fog or smoke might have contributed.

One of the dead was a driver of one of the vehicles, police said. The other was described as a passenger in a separate vehicle. Neither victim was identified.

The highway is a main route for thousands of commuters who come into the city each day from the east, including the St. Tammany Parish suburbs and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

I-10, which stretches from Florida to California, is a primary corridor for commercial truck traffic. However, long-haul truckers could bypass the closure in New Orleans by using Interstate 12, which splits off I-10 in St. Tammany north of New Orleans and runs about 90 miles west across the Florida Parishes before rejoining I-10 in Baton Rouge.