Wrong-way car injures 25 sheriff’s recruits on run in Whittier

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Five Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department recruits were seriously injured Wednesday morning when a driver plowed into a large group during a run in Whittier, authorities said.

The crash occurred near the sheriff’s training academy, near Mills Avenue and Trumball Street, Deputy Sheriff David Yoo said. The recruits were members of the STARS Explorer Academy.

Dispatchers received a call at 6:26 a.m. about an accident involving pedestrians, Deputy Sheriff Brenda Serna said.

Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Sheila Kelliher initially said 22 recruits were injured while running when the crash happened. It was not immediately clear how many were directly hit by the vehicle. Five were in critical condition.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva later said at a news conference in Orange County that 25 recruits were injured. He said one of the critical patients is “currently on a ventilator”.

“We lost some limbs,” he added.

“It looked like a plane wreck,” Villanueva said. “There were so many bodies scattered all over the place in various states of injury that it was quite traumatic for everyone involved.”

The group was running along Mills Road when they were hit, Kelliher said.

Some recruits said they heard a car accelerating and estimated it was going about 35 mph, Villanueva said.

Charlie Sampson, assistant chief of the California Highway Patrol, said about 75 recruits — two combined classes — ran in formation as the SUV approached their group.

The group ran with drill instructors, two black and white radio cars as security vehicles, and eight highway patrolmen. Everyone wore reflective vests, he said.

Firefighters at station 96 heard a loud bang and went outside to find an SUV had hit the group of recruits. The firefighters began providing aid to the injured, who were sent to seven hospitals with various injuries, Kelliher said.

“I just got sick when I heard it [about] it,” supervisor Janice Hahn told KABC-TV. “I hope and pray they all get through it.”

“Our hearts are with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department recruits who were injured this morning while training to serve their communities,” Governor Gavin Newsom said in a statement. “Jennifer and I send our best wishes for their recovery and support their loved ones and colleagues at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department during this difficult time.”

Video from KTLA-TV showed a dark-colored vehicle resembling a small SUV on a sidewalk, the front end of which was badly damaged. A downed light pole lay on the ground in front of the vehicle.

More than a dozen ambulances arrived at the scene, where firefighters had placed green, yellow and red triage mats to indicate the severity of injuries, video footage showed.

Nearby Howard J. McKibben Elementary School was closed and classes were canceled after the crash.

The 22-year-old driver of the vehicle has been arrested, authorities said. The vehicle was going the wrong way, Kelliher said. She had no information on the driver’s condition prior to the crash, but noted that his car knocked over one of the large light poles, “so there was some speed there.”

The CHP has taken over the investigation into the cause of the crash. The CHP’s multidisciplinary accident investigation team begins with an on-site forensic and technical investigation.

“It looks like this car didn’t slow down,” Hahn said.

Pat McDonald, captain of the LA County Sheriff’s Department training office, which oversees the sheriff’s academy, said “thank goodness for that light tower,” or more recruits would have been injured.

Law enforcement sources said the driver, who has not been identified and was taken to a hospital for his injuries, said he was drowsy. Authorities did not detect any odor of alcohol, but they are trying to determine if he was under the influence of other controlled substances at the time of the crash.

“I am shocked to learn that a driver drove into a group of young cadets from the Sheriff’s Academy during their morning practice,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said in a statement. “I am following this incident closely. It’s senseless and tragic.”

Sampson said the driver is from Diamond Bar, but authorities are not releasing any additional information about him at this time.

“It looks like it was an accident — a horrific accident — but we can’t know for sure until the CHP does their investigation and comes to a conclusion based on all the evidence they have yet to collect,” Villanueva said.

Dozens of uniformed police officers lined the STARS Academy parking lot on Wednesday morning, anxiously awaiting updates on those injured.

Cadets participate in a 22-week training program and there are currently two classes at STARS Academy. They undergo extensive training on firearms, law, police procedures, self-defense, law enforcement driving, physical fitness, and de-escalation of violence. This was the eighth week of Academy class 464, Villanueva said.

Trumball Street had houses with pumpkins on porches and wreaths of orange on doors. One still had Halloween decorations, with a skeleton swinging from a small carriage in front.

Along Mills Avenue, sheriff’s deputies lined the street near the damaged SUV.

Anthony Mendoza, 75, stood outside his home, where yellow crime scene tape sealed off Trumball Street and Mills Avenue. He has lived there for 25 years and has seen the cadets run by over the years.

He said they normally run to Mills via Telegraph. He estimates it to be a four-mile run.

“They do it all the time. That’s what they do,” he said.

On Wednesday morning, he started hearing sirens around 6:30 a.m., but did not leave his house to check. Later, the authorities came knocking on his door and informed his wife that there had been an accident.

“I don’t understand how this could have happened,” he said, pointing to the wreckage.

Raymond Espinosa, 92, lives next door to Mendoza. He didn’t hear the sirens; all he heard was a helicopter tapped. He heard about the crash on the news.

Espinosa, who has lived in his home for more than 50 years, has also seen the recruits run through the area in the past.

“You see them all passing by here,” he said, adding that the area is usually quite quiet and a collision like this is uncommon. “It’s terrible.”

During the morning, residents from all over the city arrived at the intersection.

‘Can you imagine the parents? They probably don’t even know their kid was hit yet,” 23-year-old Jessica Martinez told her friend, Yvonne Salas, as they peered across the road.

The pair live in Whittier and had driven to the spot. Martinez’s neighbor texted and asked if she saw what was happening on the news.

“It’s so sad,” said Martinez, who has a 3-year-old daughter.

“Stupid driver,” she added.

Omar Dadia, 42, has lived along Bentongrove Drive for four years. On Wednesday morning, his wife woke him up after hearing sirens wail along Mills Avenue.

Dadia walked to Mills around 7 a.m., where he said he saw the crashed SUV and bodies along the road. He heard moaning and saw blood.

“It hurt to see those people lying there, some here, some there,” he said. “I can’t imagine how their parents would feel right now.”

“All they wanted to do was be ready to participate,” he said.

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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