Car plows into church crowd

September 16, 2002 11:00 pm
Childrens' clothes and other debris are strewn at the scene of a weekend accident at the Cornerstone Assembly of God Church. A car plowed into a crowd gathered at the church for the food giveaway. (Stephen M. Corley/The Daily Triplicate).
Childrens' clothes and other debris are strewn at the scene of a weekend accident at the Cornerstone Assembly of God Church. A car plowed into a crowd gathered at the church for the food giveaway. (Stephen M. Corley/The Daily Triplicate).

By Jennifer Henion

Triplicate staff writer

One person was killed and 20 people were injured when a car plowed into a crowded Cornerstone Assembly of God Church parking lot Saturday.

"It knocked the people over like bowling pins. Three-quarters of them were children. To see kids flying through the air – and some of them getting run over – really shook me up," said Mayor Herb Kolodner, who was on the scene helping with the church's annual food giveaway.

The accident occurred at 11:10 a.m. when a 2001 Chevy Blazer driven by Winona Reed-Thurman, 85, of Klamath, banged its way through cars in the church parking lot and into the crowd of people. The car came to rest after slamming into the church.

Killed was 46-year-old Cathy Brandt of Crescent City.

The incident happened just minutes after the gates opened to the church's annual food giveaway where nearly 100 people were cooking hotdogs, playing music and preparing entertainment activities for the city's children.

Kolodner was there to prepare food packages for needy families.

"People had just started streaming in and about five minutes after 11 a.m., we heard this crash, crash, crash in the parking lot," Kolodner said.

He and several others looked up toward the noise and watched as the Blazer picked up speed and plowed into a group of children and some adults.

According to a California Highway Patrol report, the reason Thurman's car kept going is unknown.

Officer Kent Davis of CHP said investigators from Redding arrived in Crescent City yesterday to look over the wreckage.

"We will take a look at the car to see if there was anything wrong with it prior to the accident," Davis said.

Kolodner said Thurman likely thought she had her foot on the brake and when she hit another car, panicked and pushed harder on the gas pedal still thinking it was the brake pedal.

"The motor was racing. It was going fast and it was accelerating as it went through. The motor was still racing after it hit the corner of the church. Who knows how far it would have gone if it hadn't hit the building," he said.

Two physicians were already at the food giveaway performing free medical and dental screenings.

According to Toni Brixey of Sutter Coast Hospital, those two physicians helped tremendously by surveying all the injured, performing CPR and tagging the most seriously wounded so ambulance personnel could care for them first.

Brixey said more than 90 X-rays and 13 CAT scans were required during the three hours it took to examine all of the victims.

"From what I understand, it was very scary for everyone involved. There were many, many broken bones and lots of lacerations that needed suturing," said Brixey, who works as the director of quality and patient care services.

Of the 21 victims, only Brandt was killed, seven were "put to bed" for more than one night and two of those seven were listed in serious condition, including Reed-Thurman, the driver of the car. The remaining 13 patients were released from the hospital Saturday.

Brixey said the hospital trains for such disasters two or three times a year, using Del Norte High School drama students to act as victims.

"We have a set procedure for what we call an ‘influx of patients.' We have a call roster we go through to call in what staff we need. Most people are here within 10 minutes," she said.

Because the accident at the church was close to the hospital, Brixey said victims were able to get care in the hospital within six minutes.

The very first to respond to the scene was Crescent City Police Officer Caleb Chadwick. And according to Kolodner, Chadwick, despite being a one-year rookie, was able to help the physicians prioritize victims according to their injuries and calmly keep order in the crowd until other emergency personnel could arrive.

After all the injured were taken to the hospital, pastor of the Cornerstone Assembly of God Church Steve Chandler gathered those who remained and prayed.

"Something like this affects an entire community," Chandler said yesterday. "We're deeply, deeply affected by this."

Chandler said he is very appreciative for all the help that has been offered in the last few days. The Del Norte County School District made grief counselors available for children who might need help and social service agencies in Crescent City are also helping families cope, through counseling or other aid.

Also, several churches in town stepped forward immediately to help distribute the truckload of food the Assembly of God never got the chance to hand out.

Chandler said the church has opened an account at Six Rivers Bank to help fund the health care costs and other needs of the injured children and their families.