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, said 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. Most were treated and released.
The crash happened about 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.
David Milner of Springfield, Ill., marched in the parade as a through-hiker on the trail this year and said the accident happened during the tradition of hikers and spectators shooting water guns at each other.
“ … So there’s a lot of yelling and then suddenly there was screaming, and I heard a thud-thud, and now the car’s even with me and I hear thud-thud-thud, and there’s just bodies getting flicked one side to the other,” he said. “And then the car ended up in front of me maybe 50 or 75 feet.”
Barbara Martin, a trail hiker from Maine, was walking in the parade when the accident happened. “It was really hard to process because it happened so fast, but just the noise of people hitting the car was incredible and something I won’t soon forget.”
Another witness was Julie Martin (no relation to Barbara), a hiker and emergency medical technician from Charlottesville who was helping at a friend’s vending stand. She said there were ambulances and other medical workers in the parade who immediately began treating the victims.
“I think it was awful that this had to happen,” she said. “I think it was amazing how many people very quickly started taking care of the people who were hurt.”
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.
“Trail Days is a big festival,” Julie Martin said. “For people who are on the trail, it’s a little break. For people who come back as alumni, it’s a chance to reconnect with people. For people on the trail and for vendors, it’s a chance to see what’s new in outdoor gear and outdoor culture.”
“It’s a random event,” Milner said. “It happened to happen at the Trail Days parade, but it could happen anywhere. It could happen in a Walmart parking lot. I don’t think there’s really any lesson to learn from this.”
He did question whether the man should have been driving a car in the parade. “If they wanted somebody that can’t physically walk (to participate), I think maybe having somebody drive him in a golf cart or something like that would have been more appropriate.”