WHITTIER, Calif. – The driver of an SUV veered into the wrong lane and plowed through dozens of Los Angeles County sheriff’s academy recruits running in formation during a training exercise early Wednesday, injuring 25 of the cadets, authorities said.
The most serious injuries included head trauma, broken bones and “loss of limb,” said Sheriff Alex Villanueva. He said five people were critically injured, four had moderate injuries and 16 had minor injuries.
“So far, it looks like it’s an accident, a horrific accident,” Villanueva said, adding that he was told the scene looked like the aftermath of an airplane wreck.
Running shoes and a backpack were strewn on the ground. Close by was also a 25 mph (40 kph) speed limit sign.
“There were so many bodies scattered everywhere in different states of injury that it was pretty traumatic for all individuals involved,” Villanueva said.
About 75 recruits, from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and several local police agencies, were running in formation in the street just before 6:30 a.m. in the Los Angeles suburb of Whittier when the driver veered into the wrong lane and struck the runners before crashing into a nearby light pole, authorities said.
“Thank God for that light pole, because the vehicle ultimately hit it and stopped, as opposed to possibly hitting more recruits,” Capt. Patrick Macdonald of the academy said.
The driver was identified only as a 22-year-old man from suburban Diamond Bar who suffered a minor injury. The sheriff said a field sobriety test on the driver was negative.
Francisco Silva, who lives across the street from the crash site, said he was awakened by a loud bang as the car hit the pole. A few seconds later, he heard screaming.
He rushed to the window and recorded the scene on his cellphone.
“It was chaos,” he said. He saw injured recruits laying on the sidewalk, the grass and in the driveway that leads to his apartment building.
Silva described seeing blood, bodies in awkward positions and some people “not moving at all.”
Some uninjured recruits appeared to be frozen in shock but others took charge of helping the injured.
“I can hear these cadets yelling, ’This one’s unresponsive, this one’s not moving,” he said, adding that some took off their shirts, possibly to use as tourniquets.
Silva said there have been other accidents on the street but none this serious and none involving Sheriff’s Department runners who use the street.
Silva didn’t see any skid marks indicating the car had tried to brake.
“They had no chance whatsoever,” Silva said of the recruits. “The car was like a bowling ball and these cadets were the pins.”
Assistant Chief Charlie Sampson of the California Highway Patrol, which is leading the crash investigation, said officials were looking at all possibilities, ranging from an intentional act to impaired driving.
The class of recruits was in their eighth week and had 14 more weeks to go.
“I am personally heart sick,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn said, adding that she was focusing on the cadets who were injured to pull through this.
The recruits were running in four columns with two black-and-white radio cars and eight “road guards” wearing reflective vests, said Macdonald said. They had completed about 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) of a typical, 3.5 mile (5.6 kilometer) training run and were wearing white T-shirts and green shorts, he said.
Deputies got help from a nearby county fire station, but also immediately transported some of the most badly injured directly to hospitals, possibly saving their lives, said county Fire Chief Anthony C. Marrone.
“Our hearts are with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s recruits injured this morning while training to serve their communities,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement. “Jennifer and I send our best wishes for their recovery and stand with their loved ones and colleagues at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department during this difficult time.”
Taxin reported from Orange, Calif., and Antczak reported from Los Angeles.