- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2003

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — A car driven by an elderly man plowed through a crowded farmers market yesterday, killing eight persons, including a 3-year-old girl, and injuring up to 45 others.

Police Chief James T. Butts Jr. said that beside the eight deaths, 15 victims were critically injured and 20 to 30 had moderate or light injuries. He called the marketplace “the single most devastating scene I have seen.”

Witnesses said victims were hurled through the air as the car, running down a street closed for the once-a-week market, smashed through tents and boxes of produce.

“It was like a hurricane just came down the center of the street,” said Megan Sheehy, general manager of a nearby restaurant.

Chief Butts said the 86-year-old driver told officers he couldn’t stop.

“His statement is that he possibly hit the gas instead of the brakes,” he said.

Police did not identify the driver, but he was identified as Russell Weller of Santa Monica by the man’s neighbors. Mr. Weller is one of the registered owners of the car, a red 1992 Buick, according to Department of Motor Vehicle records.

Chief Butts said the driver was taken to a hospital for a blood test and initial results found no traces of alcohol or psychoactive drugs such as antidepressants and hallucinogens.

The driver was not arrested, but authorities were considering whether the case was “manslaughter of some type” and investigating whether he was qualified to drive, Chief Butts said.

“There may be some negligence as to his capacity to drive safely,” the chief said, although he added that the man has a valid driver’s license.

The man left police headquarters by late afternoon. Walking unsteadily with a cane, he hugged and smiled at people who picked him up from the police station. He declined to comment to a reporter.

Besides the child, the dead included five women and two men, coroner’s official Juan Jimenez said. The unidentified bodies remained at the scene late in the day as the investigation continued.

Chief Butts said he did not have an estimate of the car’s speed. Witnesses said the car was hurtling along Arizona Avenue.

“Sixty mph and it wasn’t slowing down. It was flying. And then people down, dead and everything,” said David Lang, manager of a shoe store along the market route.

“I heard a car just hit, bang, bang, bang,” said Mojgan Pour, 38. “I heard people screaming. By the time I looked, I never even saw the car. I tried to help a man, and he died while I was helping him.”

David Leifer was shopping for tropical fruit when he heard someone scream, “Oh my God.” He looked around to see a street full of bleeding, critically injured people.

He stripped off his shirt and used it to prop up the head of a badly cut woman, then grabbed some oranges to support her legs.

“I had blood all over me,” Mr. Leifer said.

Bahram Manahedgi, 50, said one person was on the hood of the car when it finally came to rest, and a woman was crushed beneath it.

Mr. Manahedgi said that when he went to pull the driver out, “he was an old man. His eyes were open and he was alive. I said, ‘Do you know what … you did?’ He said, ‘No.’ I just opened the door, I pulled him out.”

A crowd gathered around the car and “wanted to beat him up,” Mr. Manahedgi said. “I said, ‘He’s an old man, leave him alone.’”

Mary Roney, who has lived two doors from Mr. Weller and his wife for 30 years, said he has never had any trouble driving and she did not know of any health problems.

“A more careful, gentle, loving person you’ll never find,” she said, describing Mr. Weller as active in the community, including serving on a library board and tutoring students at Santa Monica High School.

The car was extensively damaged, including a smashed front end and windshield. What appeared to be shoes were on its roof.

The Wednesday market occupies two blocks along Arizona Avenue in the oceanside city, bisecting its popular Third Street pedestrian promenade. It draws thousands of shoppers.

The Los Angeles suburb is renowned for its sweeping beaches and grassy park atop a bluff overlooking the ocean and the Santa Monica Pier.

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