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More details surface on July Fourth runaway truck incident

It’s the call you never want to get while working for a small town police department on the Fourth of July: “Vehicle into crowd.”

But that is what came over the radio on Thursday as Claremont Police Sergeant Robert Ewing was performing crowd control duties during the annual Independence Day parade.

Fortunately, the initial report was not entirely accurate. There had been a crash involving one of the parade vehicles, but reports from the scene indicate that the driver may have actually steered his vehicle away from the crowd.

According to witnesses, a flatbed truck that was part of the parade pulled off Harrison Avenue into the parking lot at the Joslyn Senior Center then suddenly accelerated, gaining significant speed before crashing into a flagpole, an arbor and bushes adjacent to the center.

Witnesses described a parking lot full of people and a chaotic first few minutes in the aftermath of the crash, with some people running toward the truck while others ran away from it.

“I heard these girls scream and ran over, and I saw the flag pole come down,” said Upland resident William Gordon. “The cops didn’t play around—they came out with guns drawn.”

He said he had been sitting on a bench right where the truck crashed, but left the spot because he wanted to talk with the people from the University Club float. “Luckily it didn’t happen a few minutes earlier, the boy scouts had been standing in the lot.” he said.

According to Claremont resident George Keeler, “At the end area of the Claremont Fourth of July Parade, an elderly man driving the Habitat for Humanity float either had a medical emergency or mistook the gas for the brake. He just missed [some children] and plowed into bushes, knocking over the flag pole. I was near the accident when it happened. From what I can tell, he didn’t hurt anyone but himself. If that is true, he saved lives by swerving to the right and missing the boys who had just jumped off their float on the left.”

At the scene, Sgt. Ewing said he couldn’t say for sure what caused the driver to swerve.

“The throttle may have stuck, but I have not confirmed that,” Sgt. Ewing said, as he continued to collect information at the scene. He also could not confirm that the officers had pulled their weapons.

Mr. Keeler, who played trumpet with the Claremont Irregulars during the parade, described the driver as slumped over and so limp that people who were trying to help could not remove him from the cab of the truck. He said people were frantically looking beneath the truck to make sure no one was trapped. Mr. Keeler said when the first two police officers arrived, they did not have guns drawn, but had their hands on the holstered weapons. He said police forcibly removed the driver from the truck and put him on the ground.

A photograph of the Habitat for Humanity truck taken during the parade appears to show that the bed of the large Ford truck was empty, and that only the driver was in the cab. Members of the Claremont Youth Basketball team were directly in front of the truck during the parade.

Claremont resident John Sandhagen also rushed in to help, but seeing that plenty of people were assistinthe driver and looking under the truck, he decided to rescue the American flag from the knocked down flag pole. According to Mr. Sanhagen, the pole was sticking out at a 45-degree angle, but with all of the activity around the truck, it was soon leveled it to the ground.

“It kind of bothered me on the Fourth of July, seeing the flag on the ground.” he said, adding that he removed it from the pole, folded it up and gave it to one of the park rangers.

Mr. Sandhagen’s son Hunter had an Eagle Scout project 10 years ago that involved retiring old flags correctly and that protocol always stuck with the older Mr. Sandhagen. When he saw the flag on the ground he thought, “That is not right.”

Some residents took to social media to complain that the police responding to the incident drove at excessive speeds along the parade route, endangering additional people. Others defended the police, stating that initially no one knew how serious the crash was and that the authorities needed to respond quickly.

The first officers to arrive secured the scene and then checked to make sure no one had been hit. The driver was taken to an area hospital for medical evaluation. Police confirmed that the only injury involved the driver.

Claremont resident Sarah Rockne, her husband Russ and their three children, ages nine, seven and four, were relaxing in Larkin Park after riding their bikes in the parade. She looked up to see a very large truck moving at a high rate of speed as it narrowly avoided a woman and a child. She said the vehicle came within 10 feet of her family.

“It came at us with so much force, it was the most terrifying thing I have ever seen, people were screaming and running,” she said.

Due to recent events in which people have used trucks for violence, her first thought was that it was an intentional act.

“Our first response was that something terribly wrong is happening and there is no reason to believe this was an accident,”?she said. “Once we get the facts, then we can say it’s just an accident.”

She expressed frustration that there was no official word from the city or the police about the driver or what caused the crash.

“The hardest part is the lack of communication. Who is this guy? What happened to him? If he did steer the truck away from people then he comes across as a hero,” Ms. Rockne said. “Knowing that would help my children heal, to be able to tell them that no one tried to hurt them.”

Ms. Rockne and her family attended a trauma session on Monday at the Hughes Center, which was organized by the city after Councilmember Jennifer Stark inquired whether there was official protocol for such an event.

Licensed clinical social worker Kirby Palmer was selected to lead the trauma session because of his previous work with the Claremont Police Department.

Ms. Rockne said the session felt a little cold and that the material was geared toward adults, not children. She would like to see another session for the children who witnessed the crash to help them understand what happened.

“We need to figure out as a community how we can better respond to events like this that affected a huge group of children. To let them know they are supported and loved,” she said.

She emphasized that she loves Claremont, her home of four years, and does not want to be critical but to use this as a learning experience.

“We want this to be a positive outcome,” she added.

Councilmember Stark said the trauma session was intended only for witnesses of the accident, so it was not publicized, nor was it attended by public officials. Instead, people were contacted directly via text and instructed to spread the word among others who were at the scene at the time of the crash.

“It’s a very unfortunate situation that can really shake you off your game,” Ms. Stark said. “I felt the [trauma session] was a private process and just for those affected. It was focused on the people so they could share their experiences.”

Ms. Stark also said that the apparent silence from the city was due to a need to maintain privacy of the driver. She concluded by saying that information about the driver and the accident needs to come from the police.

Contacted on Monday and Tuesday, Lieutenant Jason Walters of the Claremont Police said only that the traffic collision investigation was “ongoing.”

Calls to the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity were not returned as of press time.

From a police standpoint, it was very clear that the situation could have been a lot worse.

“We got lucky,” Sgt. Ewing said on the Fourth. “We got very, very lucky.”

—Steven Felschundneff

steven@claremont-courier.com