A morning run by 75 recruits turns into horror: ‘It looked like an airplane wreck’
The law enforcement hopefuls were a familiar sight along Mills Avenue in South Whittier.
They ran in formation, puffing along the road in green shorts and bright white T-shirts, many of them Los Angeles County sheriff’s recruits. Residents were used to hearing them call cadence as they passed.
Wednesday morning, however, was different.
On this morning, as the sun began to rise, a Honda CR-V came barreling up the street and didn’t stop as it veered the wrong way into 75 recruits on a training run. This morning, the neighbors heard a crash that shook their homes. This morning, they saw bloodied bodies strewn across the road.
“It was just devastation everywhere,” said South Whittier resident Christine Periman.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva says injuries include head trauma and broken bones, and ‘we have had some loss of limb.’
Twenty-five recruits were injured, five of them — L.A. County sheriff’s recruits — critically. Among the injured were also recruits from the Bell, Glendale and Pasadena police departments.
Those on the scene said “it looked like an airplane wreck,” according to Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
“There was so many bodies scattered everywhere in different states of injury that it was pretty traumatic for all individuals involved,” he said during a morning news conference.
The 22-year-old driver of the SUV, who has not been identified, was detained at the scene by recruits. He tested negative on a field sobriety test and blew a 0.0 on a Breathalyzer, Villanueva said. The cause of the crash is still unknown.
“So far, it looks like it‘s an accident, a horrific accident,” Villanueva said.
Five L.A. County sheriff’s recruits were critically injured Wednesday when a driver plowed into a large group during a training run in South Whittier, authorities said.
The California Highway Patrol has taken over the investigation into the cause of the crash.
Injuries included head trauma, broken bones and “some loss of limb,” Villanueva said, speaking from Orange County, where some of the injured were transported. One of the five critical patients, he added, “is currently on a ventilator.”
“Lord willing, they’ll be able to recover, all of them,” Villanueva said. “But they’re just going to have a long road to recovery for those who had the most severe injuries.”
He added: “We hope all of them make a full recovery [and] they’ll have a chance to come back and complete the academy. That’s my goal.”
The recruits were members of the STARS Center Academy in South Whittier. Deputy recruits participate in a 22-week training program, and there are currently two classes based at STARS. They complete extensive training on firearms, law, police procedures, self-defense, law enforcement driving, physical fitness and force de-escalation.
Academy Class 464 was in its eighth week.
On Wednesday morning, the recruits — the majority of them from the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department — were running in four columns near Mills Avenue and Trumball Street. The men and women were joined by drill instructors, as well as two black-and-white radio cars as safety vehicles and eight road guards wearing reflective vests.
As the recruits ran down Mills Avenue, the SUV approached at 30 to 40 mph, according to witnesses. The car veered onto the wrong side of the road and into the group. Those at the front of the column were able to get out of the way before the SUV struck others and then crashed into a light pole, which potentially prevented it from striking more recruits.
The crash shook Periman’s home and, at first, she thought it was an earthquake. But after she went out back to look over the wall facing Mills Avenue, she spotted recruits grouped together and crouched over others splayed on the sidewalk and road. Some of them were bloodied. Others were in shock.
“Everyone was just in a panic,” she said.
From her front yard, Periman watched the CHP administer the sobriety test to the driver. He placed one foot in front of the other and walked in a straight line. Officers had him sit on the curb after, she said.
Law enforcement sources said the driver, who was transported to a hospital for his injuries, told them he was sleepy. Authorities detected no smell of alcohol, but they are working to determine whether he was under the influence of other controlled substances at the time of the crash.
A law enforcement source said marijuana was recovered from the driver’s vehicle, but a drug recognition expert has not yet examined the driver for signs of use.
Francisco Silva, who lives in an apartment above Mills Avenue, woke to two loud booms and the sounds of screaming that burst the quiet of the morning.
“It happened so fast. It was quiet then just ‘boom, boom’ and screaming and people on the floor,” Silva said.
He rushed to his balcony and saw the terrible scene spread out in front of him. It looked more like a bombing than a car crash, he said.
Recruits were on the ground in his driveway. The two closest to the car were not moving at all.
“Looking out the window seeing all these bodies on the ground, it was like a scene from a movie,” he said.
“‘This one’s not breathing,’” he heard people say about one recruit near the car. “‘We need a tourniquet,’” he heard.
In a video Silva filmed of the aftermath, recruits can be seen desperately trying to treat their most badly hurt classmates, who were immobilized and bloody on the ground. Smoke spewed from the vehicle.
Olga D’Ambrosio’s 22-year-old son, Alex, had been out running with his fellow recruits that morning. He was not injured and administered first aid to those on the ground, D’Ambrosio said.
Her voice broke as she described his phone call to her soon after.
“He called me and said, ‘Mom, something happened. I’m OK,’” said D’Ambrosio, who laid several bunches of flowers outside the STARS Center Academy parking lot Wednesday afternoon.
He told her he usually runs on the outside of the formation, but on Wednesday he ran closer to the center. She doesn’t know how that factored into the crash, but she can’t help but think he might have been hurt if he was somewhere else.
She saw her son briefly that afternoon.
“We prayed together,” D’Ambrosio said.
Pastor David Trujillo said he prayed and met with the distraught families of a few recruits who were transported in critical condition to St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood.
Trujillo, a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department chaplain, said he was one of three chaplains as well as a Roman Catholic priest who spoke with about 30 family members in a waiting room outside the intensive care unit.
“Shortly after the crash, the mood was one of sadness and fear, because no one knew what happened or what was next,” said Trujillo, pastor at Calvary Chapel South Los Angeles. “As the day went on, the mood improved a little and you could see some hope from families.”
Throughout the day, residents who lived near the crash site gathered near the line of yellow sheriff’s tape that blocked off Mills Avenue.
Late Wednesday morning, Mike Pavich, 73, still had the same coffee cup in hand from when he first learned of the crash around 6:30 a.m.
Pavich had walked over to Mills Avenue, where he’d spotted recruits laying on the street and on the sidewalk. By the time he got to the scene, there were 10 sheriff’s cars, with “more still coming.”
He estimated there were a dozen ambulances, with firefighters working on the injured and covering them with white blankets.
“Why would a car go up on the sidewalk and hit 75 sheriff’s guys running?” he asked.
Times staff writers Alexandra E. Petri and Gabriel San Román contributed to this report.
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