Five Los Angeles County sheriff’s recruits were critically injured Wednesday morning when a driver plowed into a large group during a run in Whittier, authorities said.
The crash occurred near the sheriff’s training academy, near Mills Avenue and Trumball Street, Deputy David Yoo said. The recruits were members of the STARS Explorer Academy.
Dispatchers received a call at 6:26 a.m. about a crash involving pedestrians, Deputy Brenda Serna said.
Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Sheila Kelliher initially said 22 recruits were injured while out running when the crash occurred. It was not immediately clear how many were directly struck by the vehicle. Five were in critical condition.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva later said during a news conference in Orange County that 25 recruits were injured. He said that one of the critical patients “is currently on a ventilator.”
“We have had some loss of limb,” he added.
“It looked like an airplane wreck,” Villanueva said. “There was so many bodies scattered everywhere in different states of injury that it was pretty traumatic for all individuals involved.”
The group was running along Mills Road when they were struck, Kelliher said.
Some recruits said they heard a car accelerating and estimated it was going around 35 mph, Villanueva said.
California Highway Patrol Assistant Chief Charlie Sampson said there were approximately 75 recruits — two combined classes — running in formation when the SUV veered into their group.
The group was running with drill instructors as well as two black-and-white radio cars as safety vehicles, and eight road guards. Everyone was wearing reflective vests, he said.
Firefighters at Station 96 heard a loud bang and went outside to find an SUV had struck the group of recruits. The firefighters began rendering aid to the injured, who were sent to seven hospitals with various injuries, Kelliher said.
“It made me just sick when I heard [about] it,” Supervisor Janice Hahn told KABC-TV. “I’m just hoping and praying that they all come through it.”
“Our hearts are with the Los Angeles County sheriff’s recruits injured this morning while training to serve their communities,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement. “Jennifer and I send our best wishes for their recovery and stand with their loved ones and colleagues at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department during this difficult time.”
Video from KTLA-TV showed a dark-colored vehicle that appeared to be a small SUV on a sidewalk, its front end severely damaged. A downed light pole was lying on the ground in front of the vehicle.
More than a dozen ambulances responded to the scene, where firefighters had placed green, yellow and red triage mats, indicating the severity of injuries, video showed.
Nearby Howard J. McKibben Elementary School was closed and classes were canceled following the crash.
The 22-year-old driver of the vehicle was detained, authorities said. The vehicle was going the wrong way, Kelliher said. She had no information on the driver’s condition prior to the crash but noted his car knocked down one of the big light poles, “so there was some velocity there.”
The CHP has taken over the investigation into the cause of the crash. The CHP’s multidisciplinary accident investigation team is beginning a forensic and technical examination of the scene.
“It does seem like this car did not slow down,” Hahn said.
Pat McDonald, captain of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s training bureau, which oversees the sheriff’s Academy, said “thank God for that light pole” or more recruits would have been injured.
Law enforcement sources said the driver, who has not been identified and was transported to a hospital for his injuries, said he was sleepy. Authorities detected no smell of alcohol, but they are seeking to see whether he was under the influence of other controlled substances at the time of the crash.
“I am shocked to hear that a driver plowed into a group of young sheriff’s Academy cadets during their morning training run,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said in a statement. “I’m tracking this incident closely. It’s senseless and tragic.”
Sampson said the driver is from Diamond Bar, but authorities are not releasing any additional information about him at this time.
“It looks like it’s an accident — a horrific accident — but we can’t know that for sure until the CHP does their investigation and reaches a conclusion based on all the evidence they still have yet to gather,” Villanueva said.
Scores of uniformed police officers milled about the STARS Academy parking lot Wednesday morning, anxiously awaiting updates on those who were injured.
Cadets participate in a 22-week training program, and there are currently two classes based at the STARS Academy. They complete extensive training on firearms, law, police procedures, self defense, law enforcement driving, physical fitness and force de-escalation. This was the eighth week of Academy Class 464, Villanueva said.
Down Trumball Street, homes had pumpkins on porches and orange wreaths on doors. One still had Halloween decorations up, with a skeleton waving from a small carriage in front.
Along Mills Avenue, sheriff’s deputies were grouped in the street near the damaged SUV.
Anthony Mendoza, 75, stood outside his home, where yellow crime scene tape blocked off Trumball Street and Mills Avenue. He’s lived there for 25 years and has seen the cadets running past over the years.
He said they normally run down Telegraph to Mills. He estimates it’s a four-mile run.
“They do it all the time. That’s what they do,” he said.
On Wednesday morning, he started hearing sirens around 6:30 a.m., but didn’t leave his home to check. Later, authorities came and knocked on his door and let his wife know there had been an accident.
“I don’t understand how this happened,” he said, gesturing at the wreckage.
Raymond Espinosa, 92, lives next door to Mendoza. He didn’t hear the sirens; all he heard was a helicopter overheard. He learned about the crash on the news.
Espinosa, who has lived in his home more than 50 years, has also seen the recruits running around the area in the past.
“You see them all come by here,” he said, adding that the neighborhood is usually pretty quiet and a crash like this is unusual. “It’s horrible.”
Throughout the morning, residents from across the city arrived at the intersection.
“Can you imagine the parents? They probably don’t even know yet that their kid got hit,” 23-year-old Jessica Martinez told her friend, Yvonne Salas, as they peered down the road.
The pair live in Whittier and had driven to the scene. Martinez’s neighbor texted and asked whether she saw what was happening on the news.
“It’s so sad,” said Martinez, who has a 3-year-old daughter.
“Stupid driver,” she added.
Omar Dadia, 42, has lived along Bentongrove Drive for four years. On Wednesday morning, his wife woke him after hearing sirens wailing along Mills Avenue.
Dadia walked to Mills around 7 a.m., where he said he saw the crashed SUV and bodies along the road. He heard groans and saw blood.
“Seeing those people laying there, some here, some there, hurt,” he recounted. “I can’t imagine what their parents would feel right now.”
“All they wanted to do is be ready to join,” he said.