SANTA MONICA, Calif. - An 86-year-old man drove his car the length of the Santa Monica Farmer's Market early yesterday afternoon, apparently hitting freeway speeds as he plowed through a crowd of peak summer shoppers.
At least eight people were killed, one of them a 3-year-old child, as the driver sped for more than two blocks through a market renowned as one of the region's culinary treasures. In addition to the dead, nearly 50 people were hospitalized, 15 of them with critical injuries.
Police said the driver apparently had lost control of his car.
"His statement is, he possibly hit the gas instead of the brake," said Santa Monica Police Chief James T. Butts Jr. "He said he tried to brake, and he couldn't stop the vehicle."
Tests conducted immediately after the calamity showed that the driver, identified as George Russell Weller of Santa Monica, was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Investigators said they did not believe he had suffered any medical problem that might have caused him to lose control of his car.
Witnesses at the market, which attracts as many as 9,000 people every Wednesday, said Weller appeared in a trancelike state as he drove his red Buick LeSabre west along Arizona Avenue between Fourth and Second streets.
Bodies bounced off his hood; produce stands collapsed; boxes of fruit and vegetables tumbled in his wake.
"I couldn't believe what I was seeing. He was hitting people, and they were just flying," said Parker Hall, 35, a salesman who had stopped at Second and Arizona to have a look at the market. "You would think it would have slowed him down, but it didn't. When he hit someone, you could hear it, and it was just: `Boom! Boom! Boom!'"
By the time the car came to a halt between Second Street and Ocean Avenue, Hall said, two or three people were splayed on the hood and windshield. A woman was trapped under the car, prompting bystanders to lift the front of the vehicle and pull her out. The street was strewn with the bodies of other victims, some apparently dead.
Another witness, Penny Tremper, 64, of San Luis Obispo, was working at a booth that sells jojoba oil when the car sped by. "I saw his face," she said. "He was determined. You could hear the engine roaring. The word that went through my mind was kamikaze. His eyes were wide, and his hands were clenched on the wheel."
Police said the incident occurred at 1:47 p.m., 13 minutes before the market was scheduled to close for the day. Butts said Weller had just left the post office and was heading west on Arizona when he spotted the farmers' market blocking his path. It was at that point that he apparently hit the gas instead of the brakes, Butts said.
Andy Fisher, 40, of Venice, said he saw the car accelerate as it crossed Fourth Street. West of Fourth, Arizona is closed off every Wednesday and Saturday for the produce market.
California Highway Patrol Commissioner Spike Helmick estimated that the car hit speeds as high as 80 mph.
Neighbors on Weller's street on the north side of Santa Monica described him as a kind, religious man. A former salesman, he and his wife, Harriet, a former teacher, have been married for 64 years, according to an interview the couple gave to National Public Radio several years ago.
Armando Botello, a spokesman for the state Department of Motor Vehicles, said Weller passed both written and vision tests for his driver's license in November 2000.
Weller was taken to Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, where he was examined and released to police, said Dr. Lawrence Schecter.
Police questioned Weller, then released him.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.