Updated: Nov. 22, 6:44 p.m. | Posted: Nov. 21, 6:29 a.m.
The SUV driver who plowed into a Christmas parade in suburban Milwaukee, killing at least five people and injuring 48, was leaving the scene of a domestic dispute that had taken place just minutes earlier, Waukesha’s police chief said Monday.
Police Chief Dan Thompson said there was is no evidence the crash on Sunday was a terrorist attack or that the suspect knew anyone in the parade. The chief said police were drawing up five charges of intentional homicide against the suspect.
A joyous scene of marching bands and children dancing in Santa hats and waving pompoms gave way in an instant Sunday to screams and the sight of crumpled bodies as the SUV sped through barricades and struck dancers, musicians and others. Members of a “Dancing Grannies” club were among those killed.
Police identified those killed as Virginia Sorenson, 79; LeAnna Owen, 71; Tamara Durand, 52; Jane Kulich, 52; and Wilhelm Hospel, 81.
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“It looked like dummies being thrown in the air,” said Nicole Schneiter, who was there with her children and grandchildren. “It took a second to register, like, ‘Is that what we really just saw?’ And then you looked in the road and there were just people laying in road.”
At least nine patients — most of them children — were listed in critical condition Monday at two hospitals, and seven others were reported in serious condition.
Eighteen children ages 3 to 16 were brought to Children's Wisconsin Hospital, including three sets of siblings, said Dr. Amy Drendel, medical director of the hospital’s emergency department.
They suffered injuries ranging from scrapes on their faces to broken bones and serious head injuries, with six patients operated on Sunday night and two more in surgery on Monday, Drendel said.
“This is unique and truly demonstrates the devastating effects of this on our community,” said Dr. Michael Meyer, head of the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit.
Investigators were questioning the person in custody about an earlier crime, which one of the officials described as an argument involving a knife. The official cautioned the investigation was still in the early stages. Chief Thompson said that while police were not pursuing the suspect before he entered the parade route, an officer did fire a shot to try to stop the suspect but ceased shooting because of the danger to others.
The chief said that he did not know if the driver was hit by the officer’s bullets but that no bystanders were wounded.
On its social media account, the city put the number of dead at at least five.
The horror was recorded by the city’s livestream and onlookers' cellphones. One video shows the moment the SUV broke through the barricades and includes the sound of what apparently were several gunshots.
“It was like a war scene walking through there,” said Ken Walter, who had been riding in the parade in a hot air balloon basket along with his wife and youngest son. “There were these piles of blankets with cops standing over them that you just knew were bodies.”
Walter said he saw a red SUV careen into view and watched it hit a member of his real estate-agency parade contingent, then barrel straight into members of the Waukesha South High School marching band.
The SUV continued down the parade route. Behind it, people were screaming, running, searching for family and friends and unsure whether they were still in danger, he recalled.
“It was like everything went into slow motion, and I couldn’t hear anything,” Walter said.
Schneiter said after sheltering in a store, she emerged to see bodies in the street, along with strollers, chairs, candy, random shoes. “Just stuff everywhere,” she said. “You can’t believe that really happened. It felt like we were in a movie or something. It just felt crazy.”
The Milwaukee Dancing Grannies posted on its Facebook page that some of its members were among the dead. The organization describes itself as a “group of grannies that meet once a week to practice routines for summer and winter parades.”
“Our group was doing what they loved, performing in front of crowds in a parade putting smiles on faces of all ages, filling them with joy and happiness,” the post said.
“Those who died were extremely passionate Grannies. Their eyes gleamed ... joy of being a Grannie. They were the glue ... held us together.”
A Roman Catholic priest, parishioners and Waukesha Catholic schoolchildren were among those injured, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee said.
Chris Germain, co-owner of the Aspire Dance Center studio, had about 70 people in the parade, including children as young as 2 being pulled in wagons and participants up to 18 years old.
Germain, whose 3-year-old daughter was in the parade, said he was driving at the head of their entry when he saw a maroon SUV that “just blazed right past us.” A police officer ran past in chase. Germain said he jumped out of his own SUV and gathered the girls who were with him to safety.
Then he walked forward to see the damage.
“There were small children laying all over the road. There were police officers and EMTs doing CPR on multiple members of the parade,” he said.
Angelito Tenorio, a West Allis alderman who is running for Wisconsin state treasurer, said he was watching the parade with his family when they saw the SUV come speeding into the area.
“Then we heard a loud bang,” Tenorio said. “And after that, we just heard deafening cries and screams from the crowd, from the people at the parade. And people started rushing, running away with tears in their eyes, crying.”
The Waukesha school district canceled classes Monday and Tuesday and said extra counselors would be on hand for students and staff. The parade’s list of participants included cheer, dance and band entries associated with district schools.
Gov. Tony Evers said he and his wife were “praying for Waukesha tonight and all the kids, families, and community members affected by this senseless act.”
At the White House, President Joe Biden said that “we don’t have all the facts and details yet” but that his administration was closely monitoring the situation.
The parade, held each year on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, is sponsored by the city’s Chamber of Commerce.