Witnesses describe ‘nightmare’ as truck slams into spectators

LUCERNE VALLEY, Calif. — An off-road truck sailed off a jump and hurtled into a crowd at a race in the California desert, pinning bodies beneath it and sending others flying into a chaotic cloud of dust in a crash that killed eight people, authorities and witnesses said Sunday.

LUCERNE VALLEY, Calif. — An off-road truck sailed off a jump and hurtled into a crowd at a race in the California desert, pinning bodies beneath it and sending others flying into a chaotic cloud of dust in a crash that killed eight people, authorities and witnesses said Sunday.

Twelve people were injured in the crash that came shortly after the twilight start of the California 200 Saturday night in the Mojave Desert, said San Bernardino County sheriff’s spokeswoman Cindy Bachman.

Witnesses said the driver took a jump in an area known as “the rockpile” at high speed, hit his brakes on landing and rolled sideways into a crowd of hundreds of people standing with no barriers next to the course.

“He hit the rock and just lost control and tumbled,” said Matt March, 24, of Wildomar, who was standing next to the jump. “Bodies went everywhere.”

March said he and several other fans lifted the truck, which came to rest with its oversized wheels pointing toward the sky, and found four people lying unconscious underneath.

At least seven of those killed were in their 20s, including 24-year-old Zachary Freeman of Fillmore, according to the San Bernardino County coroner.

Freeman’s girlfriend Niky Carmikle, 19, said she had left Freeman and his best friend — 24-year-old Dustin Malson of Ventura, who also was killed — to go to the bathroom when the crash happened. When she returned she found the wild aftermath.

“Bodies all over the ground, people screaming, and all I wanted to do was find my boyfriend and my friends,” Carmikle told The Associated Press. She stood and sobbed Sunday over a makeshift memorial on the spot of the crash: a small cross and a circle of rocks near the ruts in the ground left by the truck. Bags of victims’ clothing, some of it bloody sat nearby.

Brian Wolfin, 27, and Anthony Sanchez, 23, both of Escondido died at the scene, and Aaron Farkas, 25, of Escondido died at a hospital. Also killed were Danica Frantzich, 20, of Las Vegas, and Andrew Therrin, 22, of Riverside.

The eighth victim died in Riverside County, and no name has been released.

John Payne, 20, of Anaheim, said he was among the first people to reach the truck. He said the victims included one person who was decapitated.

“It was complete chaos,” Payne said.

It took rescue vehicles and helicopters more than half an hour to reach the remote location, and spectators including off-duty police and firefighters helped the injured and placed blankets over the dead.

Six people died at the scene and two others died after being taken to a hospital, authorities said. Seven ambulances and 10 emergency aircraft responded, airlifting most of the 12 injured people from the area to hospitals.

Paramedics brought six people — five adults and a child — to Loma Linda University Medical Center, spokesman Herbert Atienza said Sunday. He had no information on their condition.

The driver was identified as Brett M. Sloppy, 28, who is from the San Diego area. Authorities said alcohol was not a factor in the crash and there were no plans to arrest Sloppy.

The 200-mile (320-kilometre) race is part of a series held in the Mojave Desert’s Soggy Dry Lake Bed near the city of Lucerne Valley, 100 miles (160 kilometres) northeast of Los Angeles.

Tens of thousands of people attend the California 200, in which a variety of off-road vehicles take jumps and other obstacles and reach speeds of over 60 mph (96.5 kph) on a 50-mile (80-kilometre) off-road course that is essentially just raw, unmarked desert terrain.

The race had been scheduled to last through the night.

The crowd, which included children, was standing within 10 feet (three meters) of the track. Fans said the “rockpile” is one of the most popular areas to stand because they can get close to cars as they launch into the air, and no guard rails hold them back.

“There were no barriers at all,” Jeff Talbott, inland division chief for the California Highway Patrol, told the Riverside Press-Enterprise.

He said that the driver was forced to run from the scene when the crowd grew unruly and some began throwing rocks at him. Several witnesses said they didn’t see anyone throwing rocks at the driver.

Fans said there are rarely rails or any other safety guards at the races.

“That’s desert racing for you,” Payne said. “You’re at your own risk out here. You are in the middle off the desert. People were way too close and they should have known. You can’t really hold anyone at fault. It’s just a horrible, horrible accident.”

Carmikle said the danger is part of the appeal for many fans.

“You could touch it if you wanted to. It’s part of the excitement,” she said. “There’s always that risk factor, but you just don’t expect that it will happen to you.”

The CHP does not normally investigate crashes at organized events, but took the lead on this probe because of its scope and had set up a command centre at the starting line of the race.

The federal Bureau of Land Management was assisting in the investigation.

The crash was the latest in a series of race accidents that have proved deadly to spectators.

A car plowed into a crowd that had gathered to watch an illegal drag race on a suburban road in Accokeek, Maryland, in February 2008, killing eight people and injuring five. The two racers were charged with vehicular manslaughter. Darren Bullock, 22, was sentenced to 15 years in prison; Tavon Taylor, 20, is awaiting trial.

In Chandler, Arizona, in February, a female spectator was killed by a tire that flew off a crashing dragster at Chandler’s Firebird International Raceway for the NHRA Arizona Nationals.

In Selmer, Tennessee, a dragster went out of control and smashed into spectators during a fundraising festival in June 2007, killing six people and injuring 22. Driver Troy Critchley, 38, was convicted of misdemeanour reckless assault charges and sentenced to 18 months probation.

Derek Laogali, 22, of San Pedro, said Saturday night was the first time he’d ever been to an off-road race, and he witnessed the horror up close.

“I seen people on the floor with broken bones, people with blankets over them. I’m guessing they were dead,” Laogali said. “People were crying and screaming. It was a nightmare.”

———

AP Radio correspondent Shirley Smith in Washington contributed to this report.

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