More than two dozen Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department recruits were injured Wednesday morning when they were struck by a wrong-way SUV driver during a training run in a Whittier neighborhood.
The recruits, who were running in formation on a street, were part of a training program at the nearby S.T.A.R.S. Center. Witnesses said the recruits, who often train in the neighborhood, were in a four-column formation when they were hit by a SUV that veered onto the wrong side of the street, crashed into the recruits and stopped after hitting a light pole.
Twenty-five recruits were injured, including five in critical condition. Other injuries ranged from minor, including the driver, to moderate. County fire officials initially said 22 recruits were injured, but that figure was later updated to 25 by the sheriff's department.
"Tragedy struck our department," Sheriff Alex Villanueva said at a news conference.
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Villanueva described the injuries, including broken bones and head injuries, as life-altering and possibly life-threatening. Several of the victims' family members arrived hospitals, some by sheriff's department helicopter, the sheriff said.
The crash was reported at about 6:30 a.m. in the 10600 block of Mills Avenue. Video showed a heavily damaged SUV with a crumpled front end on a nearby sidewalk near a downed light pole that also was struck by the driver.
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"They had zero warning," said Capt. Pat MacDonald, whose department oversees the academy. "Thank God for that light pole because the vehicle ultimately hit it and stopped, as opposed to possibly hitting more recruits."
Firefighters at Station 96 heard a loud crash after seeing the recruits running past the fire station, fire officials said.
"After they heard the accident, they immediately responded with 20 response vehicles," said Capt. Sheila Kelliher, of the LA County Fire Department.
The driver veered from southbound lanes and plowed into recruits who were running in formation, the sheriff's department said.
The recruits were running in four columns with eight road guards who wear reflective high-visibility vests. Drill instructors and safety vehicles accompanied recruits on the run, according to the sheriff's department.
Villanueva said he spoke with recruits at the front of the formation.
"It happened so quickly," Villanueva said. "They jumped out of the way, but the people behind had no chance. They never saw it."
The SUV was traveling at an estimated 30 to 40 mph, Villanueva said, citing reports from recruits. There were no signs of tire skid marks, he said.
Video taken by witness to the aftermath Francisco Silva showed cadets trying to help injured cadets lying on the ground. He said he was awoken by screams and looked out his window to see the chaos.
“It’s just like a scene in a movie you don’t want to see live," he said. "When running, you're so vulnerable. It's just hard to process. Plus seeing it so close, seconds after it happened."
Green, yellow and red medical triage mats, indicating severity of injuries, were set up on the street by first responders. Several recruits were transported to hospitals in ambulances.
"We had a ton of resources on scene, and it was amazing to watch those patients get off-scene as quickly as they did," Kelliher said.
Details about what led to the crash were not immediately available. The 22-year-old SUV driver, a Diamond Bar man, was detained at the scene.
The sheriff said a DUI breath and field sobriety test administered at the scene did not indicate the driver was under the influence of alcohol.
Most of the trainees were LA County Sheriff's recruits, but some were from Pasadena, Glendale, and Bellflower.
The programs include physical training and academic sessions. Participation in the program is voluntary and not required to become a sheriff's deputy trainee.
County Supervisor Janice Hahn said the victims represent about half of the current class.
Gov. Gavin Newsom issued the following statement.
“Our hearts are with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's recruits injured this morning while training to serve their communities," Newsom said. "Jennifer and I send our best wishes for their recovery and stand with their loved ones and colleagues at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department during this difficult time."
Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger also issued a statement.
"I am shocked to hear that a driver plowed into a group of young sheriff's academy cadets during their morning training run," Barger said. "These individuals represent the future of law enforcement, they have incredible courage and my utmost respect for wanting to serve their communities. I'm tracking this incident closely -- it's senseless and tragic. From the bottom of my heart, I am hoping no one was seriously hurt.''
The California Highway Patrol asked anyone with information about the crash to contact investigators at 562-868-0503.
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