Fri, Jul 18, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Old man plows through market, injures 45

AP , SANTA MONICA, CALIF.

A car driven by an elderly man plowed through a crowded farmers market, killing eight people and injuring up to 45 others as the vehicle hurled victims through the air, smashing through market tents and boxes of produce.

Police said 15 victims were critically injured, and a 3-year-old girl was among those killed along three downtown blocks closed for the once-a-week market, transformed within seconds into a makeshift hospital morgue.

``It was like a hurricane just came down the center of the street,'' said Megan Sheehy, general manager of a nearby restaurant.

Police Chief James Butts Jr. said 20 to 30 people had moderate or light injuries.

Butts said the 86-year-old driver told officers he couldn't stop. "His statement is that he possibly hit the gas instead of the brakes," Butts said.

Butts said the driver, identified by family members as Russell Weller of Santa Monica, was taken to a hospital for a blood test and initial results found no traces of alcohol or psychoactive drugs such as antidepressants and hallucinogens.

The driver was not arrested, but authorities were considering whether the case was "manslaughter of some type" and investigating whether he was qualified to drive, Butts said.

"There may be some negligence as to his capacity to drive safely," Butts said, although he added that the man has a valid driver's license.

Weller left police headquarters by late afternoon. Walking unsteadily with a cane, he hugged and smiled at people who picked him up from the police station. He declined to comment to a reporter.

His family issued an apology Wednesday night.

"Mr. Weller and his family want to express their deepest sympathies to the victims and their families of the tragic accident," family attorney Jim Bianco said in the statement. "This was an unintentional and unfortunate accident. Mr. Weller is shaken up, but his thoughts tonight are with the victims and their families."

Besides the child, the dead included five women and two men, coroner's official Juan Jimenez said. The unidentified bodies remained at the scene late in the day as the investigation continued.

Butts said he did not have an estimate of the car's speed. Witnesses said the red 1992 Buick was moving very fast along Arizona Avenue.

"Sixty miles per hour [96 kph] and it wasn't slowing down. It was flying. And then people down, dead and everything," said David Lang, manager of a shoe store along the market route.

"I heard a car just hit, bang, bang, bang," said Mojgan Pour, 38. "I heard people screaming. By the time I looked, I never even saw the car. I tried to help a man and he died while I was helping him."

David Leifer was shopping for tropical fruit when he heard someone scream, "Oh my God." He looked around to see a street full of bleeding, critically injured people.

He stripped off his shirt and used it to prop up the head of a badly cut woman, then grabbed some oranges to support her legs.

"I had blood all over me," Leifer said.

Bahram Manahedgi, 50, said one person was on the hood of the car when it finally came to rest, and a woman was crushed beneath it.

Manahedgi said that when he went to pull the driver out, "he was an old man. His eyes were open and he was alive. I said, `Do you know what the hell you did?' He said, `No.' I just opened the door, I pulled him out."

A crowd gathered around the car and "wanted to beat him up," Manahedgi said. "I said, `He's an old man, leave him alone.'"

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