DAMASCUS, Va. – Authorities believe the driver who plowed into dozens of hikers marching in a Virginia mountain town parade suffered from a medical condition and did not cause the crash intentionally, an emergency official said Sunday.
Officials did not have a formal confirmation or any specifics on the condition, but based on the accounts of authorities and witnesses on the scene, they are confident the issue was medical, according to Pokey Harris, Washington County’s director of emergency management.
“There is no reason to believe this was intentional,” she said.
In what witnesses called a frantic scene at the parade, about 50 to 60 people suffered injuries ranging from critical to superficial Saturday. No fatalities were reported. Three of the worst injured were flown by helicopter to area hospitals.
Two people were kept at hospitals overnight, but their injuries were not critical as of Sunday, Harris said. “For the most part, everyone was treated and released,” she said.
The crash happened around 2:10 p.m. Saturday during the Hikers Parade at the Trail Days festival, an annual celebration of the Appalachian Trail in Damascus, near the Tennessee state line about a half-hour drive east of Bristol.
Damascus Police Chief Bill Nunley didn’t release the driver’s name or age but said he was participating in the parade and he had traversed the Appalachian Trail in the past. Several witnesses described him as an elderly man.
Nunley said the man’s 1997 Cadillac was one of the last vehicles in the parade and the driver might have suffered an unspecified medical problem when his car accelerated to about 25 mph and struck the crowd on a two-lane bridge along the town’s main road. The driver was among those taken to hospitals.
“It is under investigation, and charges may be placed,” Nunley said Saturday.
On Sunday, festival events were continuing as scheduled, Harris said. Mayor Jack McCrady had encouraged people to attend the final day.
“In 27 years of this, we’ve never had anything of this magnitude, and is it our job to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
Harris said that the incident left a “sad heart and black cloud” over the event and that people were proceeding with “heightened awareness.” But she emphasized the crash was an accident and said no additional security measures were taken.
On Saturday, Rudolph “Chip” Cenci, 64, of Minoa, N.Y., told The News-Item newspaper in Shamokin, Pa., that he heard people yelling “get out of the way” and turned around to find the car was about to hit him. He jumped onto the hood and held onto the gap at the base of the windshield near the wipers. He said the driver had a blank stare on his face.
“I bet you that man never realized someone was on his hood,” Cenci said.
Cenci said he had a bump on his knee but was otherwise OK. He added that his wife, Susan, 63, narrowly missed being hit.
Amanda Puckett, who was watching the parade with her children, ran to the car, where she and others lifted the car off those pinned underneath.
“Everybody just threw our hands up on the car and we just lifted the car up,” she said.
Keith Neumann, a hiker from South Carolina, said he was part of the group that scrambled around the car. They pushed the car backward to free a woman trapped underneath and lifted it off the ground to make sure no one else was trapped.
“There’s no single heroes,” he said. “We’re talking about a group effort of everybody jumping in.”