STILLWATER, Okla. (Reuters) - A car with a suspected drunk driver at the wheel barreled into crowds watching a homecoming parade at Oklahoma State University on Saturday, killing four people and injuring more than 40 others, authorities said.
Witnesses told of bodies being flung dozens of feet into the air as the gray Hyundai Elantra plowed into the throng at the intersection of Main Street and Hall of Fame Avenue in Stillwater, some 80 miles (130 km) northeast of Oklahoma City, at the end of the parade.
Stillwater Mayor Gina Noble and local police said the car crashed through barricades and struck an unmanned police motorcycle before carving through the mass of spectators.
“At first we thought it was part of the show,” Konda Walker, a 1991 graduate of OSU, told the local Stillwater News Press. “People were flying 30 feet (9 meters) into the air like rag dolls.”
Representatives for OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City said the hospital received eight victims from the crash, five of them children, ranging in condition from good to critical. One of those patients, a 2-year-old child, later died.
Stillwater Medical Center said in a statement that its staff had treated about 40 patients aged 2 to 65. About half of them had been released by Saturday evening.
The driver, identified as 25-year-old Adacia Avery Chambers, was taken into custody on suspicion of driving while under the influence of alcohol, said Captain Kyle Gibbs of the Stillwater Police.
“I’ve been here 29 years and I can’t recall an incident of this magnitude,” Gibbs told reporters at the scene.
The suspect does not appear to have been a student at Oklahoma State University, Gibbs said. Mayor Noble said in a statement that Chambers was a resident of the city.
Megan Lantz of Ponca City, Oklahoma, told the Oklahoman newspaper that about 100 people were standing on the corner at the time the car, going between 45 and 50 mph (72-80 kph), struck the crowd.
“We were facing the parade and heard tires squealing and then started to hear the car hitting things and people and there was screaming and people running away,” Lantz, 32, told the paper for a story on its website.
The suspect’s father, Floyd Chambers, 47, told the Oklahoman in a phone interview that he learned about the accident through social media and was stunned.
“I can’t figure this out. This is not the person that’s my daughter. ... I can’t imagine alcohol being involved. She is not an alcoholic that I’m aware of,” Chambers said, adding that he would pray for the families and friends of the victims.
Hours later the car was still resting, crumpled, against a lamppost on Main street, the intersection littered with clothes, blankets, lawn chairs and water bottles belonging to the victims. Streets were blocked off and secured by members of the National Guard.Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin said on Twitter that she was en route to Stillwater and that her thoughts and prayers were with those affected.
After the crash, Oklahoma State University said it decided against canceling its homecoming football game, which went ahead as planned against Kansas and was dedicated to the victims. Some 25,000 students attend the university.
“We are shocked and heartbroken by this horrible tragedy. The Oklahoma State University Homecoming parade is the most wholesome of events and to have it marred in such a way is incomprehensible,” the school’s president, V. Burns Hargis, said.
“The Cowboy Family is devastated by events at this morning’s homecoming parade,” the school said on its website, referring to the college mascot.
Reporting by Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton in Stillwater, Heide Brandes in Oklahoma City, Frank McGurty in New York, Karen Brooks in Austin, Texas and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles.; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Marguerita Choy, Cynthia Osterman and Richard Chang