What was supposed to be a joyous occasion in Waukesha, Wis., turned to tragedy Sunday afternoon when the driver of an SUV plowed into a crowd of people at the city’s annual Christmas parade.
Less than an hour into the festivities, suspect Darrell E. Brooks “intentionally drove his maroon SUV through barricades into a crowd of people,” Waukesha Police Chief Daniel Thompson said at a news conference Monday afternoon.
Five people have died and 48 others were injured. The suspect was almost immediately taken into custody. Brooks is being charged with five counts of homicide. Other charges may be added as the investigation unfolds, Thompson said.
Thompson explained that police missed a confrontation with Brooks moments before he set out on the deadly drive.
“The suspect prior to the incident was involved in a domestic disturbance, which was minutes prior,” Thompson told reporters. “And the suspect left that scene just prior to our arrival at that domestic disturbance.”
“There is no evidence this was a terrorist incident,” he added.
The chief also identified those who died as Virginia Sorenson, 79, LeAnna Owen, 71, Tamara Durand, 52, Jane Kulich, 52, and Wilhelm Hospel, 81.
Officials with Children’s Wisconsin hospital in Milwaukee said midday Monday that it is treating 18 children who were injured, including two who are in critical condition, according to the chief.
The injured children range in age from 3 to 16 and include three sets of siblings. Six patients had surgery on Sunday and two more underwent surgery early Monday.
Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul said in a tweet Sunday that the state’s Department of Justice is assisting with the response to the incident and will provide resources for the subsequent investigation.
“What took place in Waukesha today is sickening, and I have every confidence that those responsible will be brought to justice,” he said.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has ordered all U.S. and state flags to be flown at half-staff on Monday, as well as on the date of each victim’s funeral.
A longtime holiday tradition turns deadly
Local residents were gathered in the downtown area of Waukesha — a western suburb of Milwaukee — on Sunday for the 58th annual Christmas parade.
The event, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, typically takes place on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. It was canceled last year because of the coronavirus pandemic but returned this year with the theme “Comfort and Joy.”
Participants ran the gamut from police officers and firefighters to local political parties, dance troupes and high school marching bands.
The event turned tragic around 4:39 p.m. local time — less than an hour after its scheduled start time — when a red SUV sped through the parade route.
Videos from the scene show the vehicle speeding down the street, passing by some of the participants as spectators watched from the sidewalk. It then started swerving and plowed into people marching as the sound of parade music was entirely replaced with that of onlookers screaming.
Another video on social media shows the SUV bursting through low-level barricades and speeding away from the scene.
A law enforcement officer can be seen in one video chasing the SUV by foot for a short distance. That officer opened fire at the vehicle in an attempt to stop it, Thompson, the police chief, later told reporters, adding that no bystanders were injured by gunfire.
“We do not believe there were any shots fired from the vehicle,” he said.
Details about victims are scant but emerging
Some of the groups that participated in the parade are posting updates on social media.
Groups like the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies, the Waukesha Xtreme Dance Team and the Catholic Community of Waukesha issued statements late Sunday into early Monday saying members of their groups were among those killed or wounded.
The Dancing Grannies confirmed Monday morning that their members were among the dead. In a Facebook post, the group said that parade participants were doing what they loved: performing in front of crowds and bringing joy to spectators of all ages.
“Those who died were extremely passionate Grannies,” they wrote. “Their eyes gleamed…..joy of being a Grannie. They were the glue….held us together.”
As NPR has reported, students with the School District of Waukesha also took part in the parade, and multiple school marching bands were listed in its lineup.
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee said in a statement on Sunday that one of its Catholic priests, multiple parishioners and Waukesha Catholic schoolchildren were among those injured.
Some people who took part in the parade have taken to social media to say they were not hurt. Those include state Rep. Sara Rodriguez, Alderman Don Paul Browne and volunteers with the Waukesha County Democratic Party.
Aspire Dance Center of Pewaukee confirmed on Facebook that all of its dancers had been safely reunited with their families.
Dozens of people have been hospitalized
Waukesha Fire Chief Steven Howard said on Sunday that 11 adults and 12 pediatric patients had been transported to six hospitals in the area. The number of children hospitalized has since grown.
Children’s Wisconsin said Sunday night that it had taken in 15 patients from the incident, with no fatalities reported. In a Monday morning update, it said it was treating 18 kids who were injured in the parade.
Officials said on a virtual press briefing that the children arrived between 5:30 p.m. and midnight local time, mostly by ambulance and from other facilities that performed initial evaluations. They had different levels of injury, and some were unconscious.
Ten children were admitted to the hospital’s intensive care unit. Of those, six were in critical condition, three were in serious condition and one was in fair condition. Eight other patients were listed as being in fair condition and were admitted to units other than the ICU. Two patients had been discharged as of midday Monday.
Dr. Michael Meyer noted that three sets of siblings were hospitalized, which he said is unique and “truly demonstrates the devastating effects” of the tragedy on the community.
He added that the patients who were admitted represent a “wide variety” of groups that participated in the parade, though officials declined to offer more specific details.
Staff have made contact with the patients’ families and will keep in touch going forward, according to hospital officials, who added that mental health resources are available to all those who were affected by Sunday’s events.
Aurora Medical Center-Summit told NPR over email on Monday morning that it is treating 13 patients. Of those, three are in critical condition, four are in serious condition and six are in fair condition.
“We are praying for all those impacted, their families and our first responders,” the hospital said.
Witnesses describe a tragic and chaotic scene
Spectators spoke about the shock and horror of witnessing an act of violence at what was supposed to be a family-friendly event.
Waukesha resident Lindsey Ashley, 36, told NPR that she had been enjoying the parade with her two young children when the SUV drove by them.
“The SUV blazed by where we were sitting and we heard a crash and people screaming,” she said. “I grabbed the kids and took off. People were helping escort others to safety.”
She said her kids, ages 7 and 9, now never want to attend a parade again.
Another Waukesha resident, Tailyr Medrano, said she watched the collision right in front of her as she held her 1-year-old son in her arms.
She told NPR over Facebook Messenger that she had brought her toddler to the parade to see Santa for the first time, but instead “he sees a red suv running over people that are suppose to be entertaining us and children on the ground bleeding.”
Officials said that people of all ages were impacted by the collision, with Evers’ flag-lowering order saying that the vehicle “struck many adults and children.”
Corey Montiho, a School District of Waukesha board member, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that his daughter’s youth dance team had been hit.
“There were pompoms and shoes and spilled hot chocolate everywhere. I had to go from one crumpled body to the other to find my daughter,” he said, adding that his family is safe but many were not, and asking people to pray.
Prominent voices are offering help and prayers
White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted early Monday that President Biden was briefed on the situation in Waukesha. She said, “He will receive regular updates. Our team is in close touch with local officials to offer any support and assistance needed. Our hearts are with the families and the entire community.”
The FBI is helping with the investigation, its Milwaukee division said, noting that it is standard practice for the agency to assist its local law enforcement partners.
Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly told reporters on Sunday that county, state and federal officials had all been in touch with offers to help.
Reilly, who had walked at the beginning of the parade, recalled seeing the smiling faces of children and their parents as they watched from the curb.
“I am deeply saddened to know that so many in our community went to a parade but ended up dealing with injury and heartache,” he said.
NFL defensive end J.J. Watt is from Waukesha. He tweeted Sunday, “Just now seeing what happened at the holiday parade back home in Waukesha tonight. Horrific images. Truly hoping everyone is going to be ok and those not involved are now safe.”
The Milwaukee Bucks released a statement on Sunday sending their condolences to victims’ loved ones and thanking those who helped on the scene.
“What we witnessed today is beyond comprehension, so we encourage the Wisconsin community to support each other during this sad time,” the team added.
Local officials announced on Monday morning that the Waukesha County Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County are partnering to create a community fund that will support the needs of families impacted by Sunday’s tragedy.
Schools and businesses are closed on Monday
Waukesha’s public schools are closed on Monday, but the school district says it is making additional counselors available at all of its buildings for students in need of support. It is also offering bag lunches for pickup at multiple locations.
School officials said decisions about Tuesday’s operations will be determined during the day on Monday.
Carroll University, a private liberal arts university located in Waukesha, is canceling classes all week in an effort to help the campus community heal.
Waukesha City Hall is also closed to the public on Monday, officials announced.