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Several Dead as Car Plows into Crowd

Aired July 16, 2003 - 19:01   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: And a good evening to you. Thanks for joining us. A lot of still developing stories to tell you about.
A crowded farmers market in Santa Monica turned into a scene of carnage tonight. You see it right there. You're looking at pictures from the scene. We are still getting details in. This is still very much a developing story. In fact, we're anticipating a press conference to begin any moment. We're going to bring that to you live.

What we know is this, a single car plowed into the crowd, reportedly without even slowing down. Now, and early reports, again these are early reports, put the death toll at eight, including a 2- year-old child.

Police told CNN at least 40 people were injured, 14 of them critically. You see people on stretchers, on gurneys right now, right there.

CNN's Dan Lothian is there for us. What's the latest?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, I want to take you directly now to the press conference that has just started with the police chief.

Let's go right to James Butts.

JAMES BUTTS, SANTA MONICA POLICE CHIEF: ... From Fourth Street, drove through the farmers market here on Arizona, striking dozens of people and demolishing stands.

The vehicle came to rest about three blocks later west of Second Street. And by the time it had stopped, eight people had been killed, including, tragically a 2-year-old child. Approximately 40 others had been injured.

And over 100 law enforcement and fire, public safety personnel responded, triaged the wounded, transported them to area hospitals, and began an investigation into the circumstances surrounding these deaths and these injuries.

I want to give my condolences on behalf of the city to all the families that have been so tragically impacted, that have lost loved ones, and suffered the injuries that occurred today.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tell me about the driver. BUTTS: The driver of the vehicle was a male white in his 80s. He was transported to a local hospital. Blood was taken. So far there's been no alcohol nor psych meds found in that toxicology.

We are interviewing him at the station right now, trying to ascertain the causation of this accident or determine whether it was a criminal act.

We have over 100 witnesses that are being interviewed. We have different statements that would indicate a different state of mind in causation from the witnesses we've interviewed so far, so right now we're still trying to determine whether this is a straight accident, medically related, criminal negligence, or criminal homicide.


BUTTS: We have an identity on the driver. But because we have not arrested him as yet we won't be releasing his name. Because at this point it could be a mere accident.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have you ever had situations like this at the farmer's market?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One question at a time. One question at a time, please.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Either get into or go down the street while the farmers market was happening?

BUTTS: Never.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Based on the interviews you've done, are you leaning to any particular direction as to whether or not this was an accident or was intentional?

BUTTS: We are only at this point less than 2 1/2 hours from the accident, crime, whatever, and so it would be extremely premature to hazard any type of opinion as to what the causation was at this point.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Witnesses indicate that the car was accelerating as it was moving down or traveling as a steady rate?

BUTTS: We have witnesses that as we said have conflicting recitations of what happened, but the only thing we're sure of is the car was traveling at, at least a moderate rate of speed because it did so much damage to so many people and so many stands.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you tell your impression on the scene what you saw? Have you ever seen anything like this?

BUTTS: As I stated earlier, this is the single most horrific, devastating, scene of tragedy I've ever witnessed in 30 years of law enforcement. And the sight of that 2-year-old that was killed just broke my heart.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Were there any (UNINTELLIGIBLE) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The driver remorseful? Did he say anything.

BUTTS: I have no idea if there were any foreign nationals or tourists involved.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Will the market be open until next week?

BUTTS: We won't even discuss that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One question at a time, please.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are the witnesses -- have they described any...

COOPER: You've been listening and watching an impromptu press conference given by Chief James Butts, Santa Monica Police Department.

Dan of CNN is standing by, as well. He's covering this now. This accident and/or crime began some 2 1/2 hours ago according to the chief. Let's check in with Dan.

Dan, what can you tell us?

LOTHIAN: Well, obviously as you can see here it's quite a chaotic scene. A lot of reporters have gathered around here as the chief has been giving the latest information. Certainly, this has been a tragic incident that happened in the city of Santa Monica.

This farmers market which on Wednesdays between 9 and 2 is crowded with people going to buy fruits and vegetables, right before it wrapped up was when that car came plowing through that street which is closed to traffic.

One witness describing it as almost like a bowling alley. He saw people bouncing off the hood and off the roof of that car. The latest count that we've gotten is that eight people are confirmed dead. One of them, a 2-year-old child. Fifteen people are in critical condition; 20 to 40 people with moderate to minor injuries.

This obviously you can just imagine what it has done to the witnesses who saw this unfolding. According to authorities, at least 100 people who were there when it happened, they plan to talk to those people to interview those people as they try to figure out whether this was intentional or whether it was an accident.

Now, the person who was driving the car, we're told by authorities, is a man who was about 80 years old. He did sustain some injuries, although they're not life threatening injuries. He is getting some medical attention.

But also, authorities plan to interview to find out if perhaps there was some medical problem that occurred that caused him to plow into these people or whether it was intentional -- Anderson.

COOPER: I should point out that as the chief of police in Santa Monica pointed out this man is not under arrest at this point. As you said, Dan, they want to interview him, try to ascertain what happened.

Dan, I want to ask you, what are you hearing from witnesses on the scene? I ask this question because I read an account from a person named Joe Christman, who was described by CNN as an eyewitness to the accident, and he said this about the driver. I'm going to read it to you directly.

He said, quote, "He looked very, very confused. I think he was just mentally out of touch. He seemed very confused when he stepped out of the car. He definitely shouldn't have been behind the wheel. He was definitely not quite with it."

Are you hearing similar things on the scene?

LOTHIAN: Well, once again, I think I want to reiterate what the police chief said is that they're hearing conflicting information. Some people, witness accounts are that the man appeared to be confused. He appeared to be out of it. Appeared to be sort of going forward in a gaze.

Others said that he appeared to be driving intentionally into the crowd of people.

Yet another witness said that he couldn't really tell what his face looked like because the windshield was cracked. Apparently this happened after he had run into a number of people before he got to that witness.

So certainly at this point, it is so difficult for authorities to come to any particular conclusion based on what the witnesses are telling them, because there is conflicting information.

But what we do know is that it was an elderly man, so that would probably lean towards that conclusion that maybe something did go wrong medically. He is being checked out, as the chief said. They have taken some blood tests. But right now, it's too early for them to determine whether this was an accident or whether he intentionally drove into the crowd.

COOPER: All right. Dan Lothian reporting live from Santa Monica, the scene of this tragedy, which was a quiet California afternoon when this car just came barreling down the street.

We're going to be following the story throughout the hour and also Paula Zahn will be covering it, as well, in the next hour.


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