Veteran firefighter at recruits crash scene had ‘never seen something at this magnitude’

Five Los Angeles County sheriff's cadets were critically injured Wednesday morning
Five Los Angeles County sheriff’s cadets were critically injured Wednesday morning when a driver plowed into them during a morning run in South Whittier.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Marcos Espiritu was working an overnight shift at Station 96 when he heard dozens of recruits jog past just before sunrise.

They were a familiar sight to Espiritu, who has worked at the station on Mills Avenue in South Whittier for around 10 years.

After they passed, Espiritu heard a terrible crash. Then, screaming. As he moved to see what had happened, a deputy recruit suddenly banged on the station door.


“We need help,” the recruit said.

Espiritu and another firefighter walked the few hundred feet to the crash site. Two others drove the engine over.

“There was just total chaos,” Espiritu said. A Honda CR-V had veered the wrong way into the 75 recruits — the majority of them from the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department — who had been running in formation.

He saw that the SUV had crashed into a light pole, which had slammed to the ground. His No. 1 concern as he arrived, he said, was the live wire and the recruits lying on top of it. They needed to be moved, and fast.

Recruits were tending to their injured classmates when the firefighters arrived and began to help. Espiritu saw mangled legs and exposed bones. One deputy recruit, who he believed to be the most severely injured, had “skull injuries with the bone exposed.”

The first responders used soft splints to put pressure on injured extremities and stabilize them, he said. They bandaged and dressed wounds to control the bleeding.

Minor injuries consisted of scrapes on recruits’ arms, legs and backs. Firefighters draped white blankets over the young men and women to keep them warm in the morning chill. Temperatures hovered in the mid-40s and 50s.


“They were pretty much totally in shock,” he said about the recruits. “They were just very quiet and helping their classmates.”

An investigation is underway after a driver plowed into sheriff's recruits
An investigation was underway after a driver plowed into sheriff’s recruits
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Five or more critical patients would constitute a mass casualty incident, Espiritu said, and “obviously it was more than that.” He made a report to dispatch and requested additional resources.

Thursday morning, the sheriff’s department said Nicholas Joseph Gutierrez, 22, had been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder on peace officers.

Espiritu, who has been with L.A. County Fire for 36 years, said he’s “never seen something at this magnitude.” But he said that Mills is known to be a fast road, with “cars flying up and down here.”

He sympathizes with the recruits, who were out on a normal training run, he said. As of Wednesday night, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department said several recruits remained in critical condition.


“They’re just trying to get a new career out of it and serve and protect, just like we do,” he said. “I really feel sorry for them.”