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Driver Speaks of His Pain

As area churches offer prayers for the victims, the 86-year-old who plowed through the farmers market says he is heartbroken.

July 21, 2003|Richard Fausset, Jia-Rui Chong and Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writers

During a day of anguished services filled with prayers for victims and the driver in the Santa Monica Farmers' Market tragedy, the 86-year-old man who was behind the wheel issued his first public statement Sunday, calling what happened a "devastating accident."

"There are no words to express the feelings my family and I have for those who suffered loss and pain ... " said George Russell Weller, in a statement read by his pastor, the Rev. Stephen C. Lien of Brentwood Presbyterian Church. "I am so very distraught, and my heart is broken over the extent of the tragedy.

"After the accident, I called Pastor Lien to ask for prayers that might help bring comfort and solace to all who have been touched by this horrible event, and I continue my own prayers for all those who are suffering and grieving during this very difficult time."

Authorities have not said whether they will bring charges against Weller, who told investigators he might have mistaken his gas pedal for the brake.

Meanwhile, residents throughout the Los Angeles area Sunday continued to confront the wreckage wrought by the crash, which killed 10 people and injured dozens more.

At the Hollywood Farmers' Market at Ivar and Selma avenues, shoppers stopped to give blood at a mobile Red Cross donation center parked near an array of cilantro, Bing cherries, orchids and avocados.

"It's an easy thing to do to help people," said Debbie Rose, 36, of Atwater Village, who filled out a donor application as her 13-month-old son, Owain, rested in his stroller. "As a mother, you think, 'What could be safer than going to a farmers' market and getting fruits and vegetables for your children?' "

A grimmer scene unfolded in Mission Hills, where scores of Iranian Jews at a small cemetery chapel shrieked in horror and thumped their chests as the coffins of Molok Ghoulian Nabatian and her 7-month-old grandson Brandon Esfahani Davidi were wheeled toward the graveyard, flanked by grim-faced men in black yarmulkes.

Nabatian, 63, was at the Santa Monica market Wednesday with Brandon and her daughter, shopping for vegetables for the Jewish Sabbath, when Weller's car barreled toward them. Nabatian's daughter Janet Davidi stepped aside to make a cell phone call. But Nabatian, who was wheeling Brandon in a stroller, was unable to get out of the way.

Most of the service for Nabatian and her grandson was conducted in Farsi, and organizers of the ceremony requested that reporters not question those who attended. But one of Nabatian's granddaughters spoke through choking tears in English of her respect for a woman who defied convention, recalling how Nabatian had recently opened a Persian phone book to show her how many Iranian women had become doctors and had been able to pursue both a career and a family, despite the concerns of traditionalists.

"She didn't care what others said of her," the granddaughter said. "My grandmother did not have to conform.... Never once did I have to utter the phrase, 'This is America, not Iran.' "

In services at Brentwood Presbyterian, Lien described the congregation where Weller has worshiped for more than 30 years as "devastated and confused." Some churchgoers in the modest chapel near the Brentwood Country Club wiped tears from their eyes; others huddled together to pray quietly near the altar.

During the services, Lien read from Psalm 46 -- "God is always ready to help in times of trouble" -- and Psalm 130, which reminds human beings of their shared fallibility: "If you kept a record of our sins," it reads, "who could escape being condemned?" Lien, who met with Weller the night of the crash, encouraged his flock to look to God for consolation, not explanations. "I think we want reasons," he said, continuing that people believe that "if we understood why this happened then it would be better. Ridiculous.... Instead of reasons, in a household of faith, we get reassurances, I think."

On Wednesday afternoon at 1:47 p.m., he added, "God's was the first of all our hearts to break." After the 8 a.m. service, church member Ken Wales conceded that the last few days had been difficult for the church, but he said the situation had been aided by the widely held conviction that Weller -- a former salesman who had helped start a family ministry at the church and tutored high school students -- is a fundamentally good man.

"He's been a role model for all of us," Wales said.

Millie Reid, a Century City resident, said her "heart goes out" to Weller.

"I lost my husband two years ago," said Reid, who described herself as over 70. "He was 86. I know how difficult it is to give up driving and have your independence taken away. But you also have to have some sense."

"I do say prayers for him to comfort him," said Sharon Martin, 62, who regularly attends Brentwood Presbyterian from Santa Monica. She does not know Weller, but said he "looks like a very gentle person."

Martin, whose coworker at G. B. Escrow in Santa Monica had been injured in the crash, said people in her office spent the rest of Wednesday afternoon sitting with the woman, who had protected herself by throwing a table between herself and the car.

Martin said she thinks the elderly need to undergo driving tests more frequently. "And the idea of putting barricades up is a good one. But they have to be concrete," she said, referring some protective proposals for the market.

Lien asked his flock to share any special prayers they might have with fellow churchgoers. In anticipation of the tangled legal problems that may follow from the crash, one worshipper asked God to "soften the hearts of the lawyers." At a later service, a man near the back said, "Give us the wisdom to know how to prevent such a tragedy and protect the rest of society."

To both petitions, the congregation added: "Hear our prayer."

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