What started as an annual Los Angeles-to-San Diego biker run turned into an unthinkable tragedy Saturday as a pickup swerved over a San Diego-Coronado Bridge retaining wall and plunged 60 or more feet onto vendors’ sales booths during a festival in Chicano Park.
Four people were killed almost instantly and nine others were injured, authorities said. Two of the injured victims suffered major trauma.
The driver, who was later arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence, was in shock within seconds of the crash and asked witnesses who rushed to his aid to please contact his commander at a nearby military base.
Authorities identified him as Richard Anthony Sepolio, 25, a Navy man stationed in Coronado.
The names of those who died were not released. The California Highway Patrol said they were a man, 62, and a woman, 50, from Chandler, Ariz., and a man 59 and a woman, 49, from Hacienda Heights.
Some witnesses said two were motorcyclists in La Raza Run and two were tending a booth, selling T-shirts at the Barrio Logan event.
Iris Jimenez, 29, of La Puente, said she was friends with the two riders, and described them as “very nice people.”
“I saw the truck coming at me, and if I hadn’t run, I’d be dead,” Jimenez said. Her companion, Pedro Sanchez, was one of several men who rushed to lift the pickup off the dead victims.
“It’s horrible. Its horrific,” said Officer Jake Sanchez of the California Highway Patrol, one of several agencies that responded to the emergency call. “Innocent people were down here having a good time.”
Police and paramedics swarmed to the busy park when officers reported multiple casualties among the visitors.
They credited bystanders with shoving the overturned pickup upright, offering first aid within seconds of the crash, and for helping emergency crews close the roads beneath the bridge.
One woman was reported to have a suffered a compound fracture, with the bone showing, and a man had an injured leg, police said.
The injured were taken to Scripps Mercy Hospital, UC San Diego Medical Center and Sharp Coronado Hospital. Most of them were described as having moderate injuries and were expected to survive.
“It’s a miracle there weren’t more people hurt,” said San Diego police Capt. Chuck Kaye. He said several officers who had stopped by to check on the crowd saw the pickup fly off the freeway. They immediately went to aid the injured.
The driver was traveling from a northbound lane on Interstate 5 west onto the bridge when he lost control of his GMC pickup about 3:45 p.m. The tan truck with Texas license plates landed steps away from a stage, where the Los Angeles blues-roots band The 44s was in the middle of its performance, witnesses said.
A CHP spokesman said no police officers were pursuing the pickup before it crashed.
Stunned bystanders watched as what had been a sun-soaked afternoon of music and entertainment turned into a deathly emergency scene. One witness said it was “instant chaos and panic.”
The CHP immediately closed the I-5 north access to the bridge so investigators could do their work. The eastbound lanes remained open, and the westbound side remained closed until about 11 p.m.
San Diego, Coronado and Harbor police assisted victims, strung barrier tape around part of the park and ushered motorcycle riders out of the way of arriving fire engines and ambulances.
Several thousand people were gathered in the Barrio Logan park for what is known as the La Raza Run.
One attendee said up to 2,000 bikers left downtown Los Angeles on Saturday morning headed for San Diego, with a stop at a Lake Elsinore casino, then the Chicano Park festival of music and food capping off the run. An after-party was held in National City. Up to 1,000 others, including families and children, were from the different neighborhoods in San Diego.
People who witnessed the crash said they were stunned at what they were seeing.
“I saw a truck come right off the freeway. It was going so fast it flew over the stage and landed in front of the stage on a tent, a booth that was set up,” said Chase Dameron, who was about 30 feet away.
He said four people in the booth were crushed by the pickup. Debris from the crash was scattered onto a neighboring vendor’s booth.
“It was like a movie. It was like in slow motion,” Dameron said. “Where it hit, there was dust and debris and instant chaos and panic. People running crazy.”
Isaac Cardoza of Los Angeles was selling hats at a nearby booth when the pickup came hurtling from the bridge. He said at first he thought it was a big piece of cardboard, but that didn’t make any sense.
He said the truck crushed one booth staffed with people selling T-shirts from the Wagon Wheel bar in Pico Rivera, and a second booth for a charity organization. Many witnesses whipped out cellphones to document what they were seeing, he said.
“A lot of people were holding their phones in the air, trying to record everything,” Cardoza said.
Paul Gomez, a musician with the band Generations Boulevard, said his group had finished its set before the crash.
“I was sitting on the steps of the stage and the truck came over my head,” said Gomez, who lives in the L.A. suburb of Covina. “It hit the front end, bounced and landed on its side.”
Karen Hoffman, a flight nurse who is married to Gomez, said she scrambled to the crash site, but there was little to do for the people who had been in the booth. She said she tried to comfort the driver as paramedics and investigators made their way to the scene.
Another witness who identified himself only as James said he and his girlfriend were struck by some of the metal, wood and other materials that went flying once the truck nose-dived into the booth.
“We cheated death today,” said James, who said he pushed his girlfriend to safety when he realized what was happening.
By nightfall, people were creating a memorial to the dead with candles and flowers.
None of the victims was immediately identified. In a tweet, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said: “Praying for victims & families affected by the tragedy in Chicano Park. Devastated this occurred in one of our community's most beloved places.”