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Car Plows Into School Crowd

Accident: Eighteen students and teachers are injured, four severely, as driver loses control of vehicle in a parking lot.

January 31, 2002|RICHARD WINTON and JOE MATHEWS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A woman who apparently lost control of her car plowed into a row of students waiting for their rides Wednesday outside a private elementary school in Eagle Rock, injuring 15 children and three teachers, four of them severely.

The woman, who was there to pick up her grandchild, accelerated through the parking lot at Westminster Academy Christian Day School "at unexpected speed," said Brian Humphrey, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department.

"She stepped on the accelerator instead of the brake," said LAFD Capt. Steve Ruda.

Humphrey said the children "were standing in alignment. That is why a significant number were hit."

David Thibault, principal of the academy, said he saw four or five victims trapped beneath the car. A group of people, including members of a basketball team from Arcadia who were visiting a nearby school, lifted the car so the victims could be freed, he said.

"It took many of them to lift it," Thibault said.

The Fire Department responded in force, setting up a triage center in the school's parking lot, providing emergency treatment before taking the most seriously injured to hospitals.

Most of the injuries were described as "bumps and bruises," but three children and at least one adult were more severely hurt.

Two boys ages 6 and 9 were taken by helicopter to Childrens Hospital at Sunset Boulevard and Vermont Avenue where they later were reported alert and in stable condition with multiple fractures. The injuries were said not to be life-threatening.

A 9-year-old girl who suffered head injuries and a music teacher with multiple leg and pelvic fractures were taken to County-USC Medical Center, where both are expected to recover. Other children with less serious injuries were taken there and to Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena.

Police quickly cordoned off the area around the school, frustrating the efforts of worried parents to find out whether their children were among the victims.

"Let me through! Let me through!" shouted one woman whose way was blocked by police and emergency personnel.

Don Hanson rushed to the school after getting a call that his wife, Jan, a music teacher, was among those struck.

"All I know is she was under the car and they had to pick it up off her," Hanson said as he tried to find out how badly his wife had been hurt and where she had been taken.

The academy in the 1400 block of Colorado Boulevard serves children from kindergarten through eighth grade. The school is not affiliated with the adjacent Eagle Rock Baptist Church.

Police said that at about 3:15 p.m., as customary, about 80 of the school's 220 students had formed two parallel queues in the parking lot, which doubles as a playground, to await their rides, which turn in from a side street and drive between the lines of children.

The cars normally drive slowly, but this time, an older Mercedes-Benz accelerated suddenly into one of the lines of children, scattering victims across the asphalt, officials said.

"Some of the kids, they just didn't see it coming," said Jaryl Mordeno, an 11-year-old student at the school who escaped injury.

Jan Gabrielson, who has taught at the school for 30 years, was patrolling the parking lot when she saw the car lurch forward. She quickly moved herself and several children from its path.

"It happened too quickly for most everyone else to get out of the way," she said.

The car ran over and dragged several children and one teacher, Gabrielson said. Other teachers and several basketball players gathered and lifted the car to free those trapped.

Student Jonathan Villegas, 11, ran inside and shouted for help. Another student, Jeffrey Arilar, 12, said he "saw smoke and kids lying around everywhere and kids lying under the car."

The driver, described as a woman in her 60s, suffered minor bruises and was hospitalized for observation. "She was deeply shaken," Humphrey said.

"Our preliminary investigation revealed that this was a tragic accident, with no criminal intent," said Los Angeles Police Sgt. John Pasquariello.

Police said they had no plans to file any charges.

The school will be closed today, but a prayer service will be held there at 9 a.m.

*

Times staff writers Manuel Gamiz, Sandra Murillo and Eric Malnic contributed to this report.

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