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Market Massacre 

A deadly day in Santa Monica

Thursday, Jul 17 2003
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Shortly before 2 p.m. Wednesday — just as this issue of the Weekly describing the joys of the Santa Monica Farmers Market was going to print — the market became the scene of carnage.

 The catastrophe — which eerily resembled the site of an airline disaster — was caused by an 86-year-old local man named Russell Weller, who may have mistakenly jammed his foot on the accelerator instead of the brake of his 1992 Buick Le Sabre, causing it to blast, at freeway speeds, through two and a half blocks of Arizona Street while the pavement was completely jammed with stalls and hundreds of shoppers.

 Weller’s car eventually came to rest between Second Street and Ocean Avenue, its windshield shattered; its sheet-metal exterior bowed and dented as if by dozens of soft mallets. The damage to the car was, of course, caused by hurtling human bodies — the people Weller hit. His swerving ride through the market left strange detritus on the car’s roof as well — a man’s oxford shoe, some vegetables, and a woman’s black wedge-heeled slide sandal. There was also a man’s body, obviously dead, draped on the vehicle’s hood.

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 During the long, strange seconds during which the accident unfolded, witnesses struggled to make sense of what they were seeing and hearing. “It sounded like gun shots,” said a Brookstone clerk, standing outside the popular gadget store on the Third Street Promenade. “Then I heard screams, and this woman crying, ‘They killed my baby.’ I thought someone was shooting. So I closed the doors of the store and locked them.”

 Market vendor Dave Eakin — whose citrus stall was on the south side of Arizona near Third — thought irrationally that he was hearing a tidal wave. “I glanced to my right, saw the Buick and the flying bodies and ducked behind my truck.” When Eakin emerged from his haven, oranges were rolling in street willy-nilly, and three women shoppers who had been nearest his stall were lying scattered like dolls. “One lady had two of her fingers snapped back,” he said. “Another, an older lady, was lying with her head in a pool of blood. She didn’t look good.”

 Hearing the racing motor and the rapid series of ominous thuds, Russ Moore ran from his store at 219 Arizona. “The first person I saw was obviously dead,” he said. “Next I saw a guy with his legs at terrible angles, and there was so much blood. A lot of us were trying to help, but we were afraid to move people so we just talked to them, telling them to hold on.”

 Within minutes, an off-duty EMT and an ER nurse materialized and began giving quick orders to anybody able within earshot. Then there was the high keening wail of the emergency vehicles. By 2:15, dozens of injured had been moved for triage to a central area near Third Street. Six bodies lay where they fell, covered in yellow plastic — one a man with crutches, another a disturbingly small shape that later was learned to belong to a 3-year old girl. Later the death toll would climb to nine, with more still critical.

 A gray-haired, hip-looking man from Burkart Farms crept over to a woman sprawled in front of his stand, sure she was one of the dead. “But then she started to breathe,” he said. So he stroked her hand, telling her he would stay with her until help came. When paramedics finally took the woman away, he fretted powerlessly. “Her name is Holly,” he said over and over again, fighting tears.

 Various people worried aloud about a badly injured young woman and her baby, whose condition was clearly perilous. A tall businessman mentioned that First Presbyterian Nursery School was just around the corner. “My daughter goes there,” he said. “School’s out for the summer. But two weeks ago at this time, there could have been 30 little kids and their parents right there in the street.”

 The curious streamed in from the Promenade and rumors flew. The driver was evading police, people said; that’s why he was speeding. The driver escaped on foot into the crowd and was still at large. It was intentional, a case of someone going postal. “Otherwise why did he swerve from side to side?” There was brief mention of terrorism, but it dissipated quickly. Eventually, word came round that it was an old man who appeared stunned by the wreckage around him. As several farmers helped Weller from his car, one vendor ran at the Buick screaming, “Kill the son of a bitch! Kill him!” But others restrained him.

By 6:30 p.m., the injured had been spirited away; the curious had mostly drifted elsewhere. Only the press, law enforcement, and the mangled possessions of the dead still littered Arizona Street.

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