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Car Plows Through Crowd in Santa Monica, Killing 9

The 86-year-old driver apparently loses control and speeds 2 1/2 blocks through a farmers market. More than 50 are hurt, 15 critically.

July 17, 2003|Joel Rubin, Daren Briscoe and Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writers

An 86-year-old man drove his car the length of the Santa Monica Farmers' Market early Wednesday afternoon, apparently reaching freeway speeds as he plowed through a crowd of terrified summer shoppers, killing at least nine people, including a 3-year-old girl.

More than 50 people were hospitalized, 15 of them with critical injuries, after George Russell Weller of Santa Monica sped for 2 1/2 blocks through a market renowned as one of the region's culinary treasures.

Police said it appeared that Weller had lost control of his car.

"His statement is, he possibly hit the gas instead of the brake," said Santa Monica Police Chief James T. Butts Jr. "He said he tried to brake and he couldn't stop the vehicle."

Tests conducted immediately afterward showed that Weller was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Investigators said they did not believe he had any medical problem that might have caused the crash.

Police released Weller after questioning but said he could still be charged.

Witnesses at the market, which attracts about 9,000 people every Wednesday, said Weller appeared to be in a trance-like state as he drove his maroon Buick LeSabre sedan west along Arizona Avenue between 4th and 2nd streets.

Bodies bounced off the hood; produce stands collapsed, sending tables and umbrellas flying; boxes of fruit and vegetables tumbled in his wake. Those who weren't hit could only watch in horror.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing. He was hitting people and they were just flying," said Parker Hall, 35, a salesman who had stopped at 2nd and Arizona to have a look at the market. "You would think it would have slowed him down, but it didn't. When he hit someone, you could hear it, and it was just, 'Boom! Boom! Boom!' "

By the time the car came to a halt between 2nd Street and Ocean Avenue, Hall said, two or three people were splayed on the hood and windshield.

"I was standing there talking to one of the farmers," said Laura Avery, the market's manager. "I heard this thing coming. It went right past us and we all ran after it. People were trying to get the license plate. Farmers were yelling, 'Get that guy! Get that guy!'

"But when we got there, it was just this old man sitting there in his car with an air bag blown up in his face, looking like he didn't know where he was. Then somebody said, 'Oh, my God! There's somebody under the car.'

"So everybody got together to try to move the car. There was this lady there just totally skinned and scraped."

The hood of the 11-year-old Buick was mangled and dented. An apple core and two unmatched women's shoes lay atop its roof.

"It was gruesome," Hall said. "There was fruit everywhere, and [bodies] were covered with raspberries and other things." He said the crowd pulled the driver out of the car, and he "looked like he was in some kind of numb state.... He wasn't freaking out. It's the weirdest thing I've ever seen in my life."

There were more children at the market than usual because of summer vacation.

Lore Caulfield, a flower vendor from Oxnard, described a scene of shopping carts, baby carriages and bodies strewn amid the colorful disarray of produce.

One image, in particular, was seared into Caulfield's memory, that of a child covered in blood in the street.

"The baby was dead and the mother was screaming and there wasn't anything anyone could do," she said.

By late Wednesday evening, the Los Angeles County coroner's office was besieged with phone calls from frantic people who believed relatives had been at the market and not returned home. By midnight, coroner's officials said they were still notifying family members of the dead.

The dead included six men, two women and the child, officials said. Among them was a married couple.

Police said the incident occurred at 1:47 p.m., just 13 minutes before the market was scheduled to close for the day. Butts said Weller had just left a nearby post office and was headed west on Arizona when he spotted the farmers market blocking his path. It was at that point that he apparently hit the gas instead of the brakes, Butts said.

Daniel Vomhof, a San Diego area forensic consultant for traffic accidents, said such confusion between the brake and the accelerator can occur in drivers of all ages, although most commonly when they are behind the wheel of an unfamiliar car.

He said the mistake typically compounds itself as a driver panics, stepping harder on the gas in the mistaken notion that the brakes have failed.

"Things go from bad from worse instead of bad to better," Vomhof said, adding that in such cases the car often does not stop until it collides with something.

Andy Fisher, 40, of Venice, said he saw Weller's car accelerate as it crossed 4th Street. Arizona is closed off west of 4th every Wednesday and Saturday for the produce market.

The Wednesday market has a reputation as one of the best in the nation and attracts a loyal crowd that includes chefs from many of the most prominent restaurants in the Los Angeles area.

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