A driver who witnessed the fiery crash that killed journalist Michael Hastings says the vehicle the 33-year-old was driving shook his car "like a freight truck" as it flew by early Tuesday morning in Los Angeles.
"Was stopped at a red light tonight when a pearl white Mercedes flew past," Michael Carter wrote on Facebook a few hours later. "It shook my car like a freight truck going by. Saw it burst into flames a quarter mile down the road when it hit a tree."
In a Facebook message to Yahoo News, Carter explained in detail what he saw:
I was stopped at the light at Santa Monica [Boulevard], headed south on Highland [Avenue]. I looked down to turn my radio down, and this car just blasted past me through the red light—it shook my car. No telling how fast the driver was going. A taxi driver was in the far right lane and we looked at each other, both saying, "What the hell was that?"... By the time the light changed, I could only see the tail lights of the white Mercedes—it was probably past Willoughby by then which was the next red light that I got stopped at. The Mercedes was flying down Highland. The same cab driver pulled up to the light at Willoughby [Avenue] and I looked over at him again in disbelief. Right as I did, the cab driver said something to the effect of, "He didn't make it." The [Mercedes] was all the way south of Melrose [Avenue] at this point.
I looked down Highland and saw a giant fireball at the base of one of the palms that line the medians on Highland. It was surreal. Even from as far away as I was, I could see how violent an impact it had been. I live in the area so parked near my place and sprinted over the the scene of the accident. As I was running, a couple of workers from the service station at the corner of Melrose and Highland were also running over. In broken English, one of them and I traded stories of what we saw as we ran. From what I could understand, he saw the car come off the ground at some point—maybe when [it] crossed Melrose.
A Hancock Park resident was already spraying the car with his water hose when we got to it, but wasn't making any progress. The car was engulfed. I couldn't see inside it. Fire trucks and police cars were at the scene almost immediately, it seemed.
I stayed and watched firefighters extinguish the the blaze. Bummed a cigarette from a guy named Jeremy and traded stories about what we saw. He was right around Melrose and Highland when it happened. I gave a statement to police and walked home.
According to the Los Angeles Police Department, the driver was pronounced dead at the scene shortly after 4:25 a.m. Initially, neither the department nor the Los Angeles County coroner's office could positively identify the victim because the body was too badly burned. On Wednesday, the coroner confirmed the body taken from the vehicle was Hastings but said it would likely take several weeks to determine a cause of death.
Raw video taken from the scene—posted on LAWeekly.com—shows Hastings' vehicle engulfed in flames. The crash remains under investigation, the LAPD said on Thursday, but police officials told the Los Angeles Times they do not suspect foul play.
Hastings, a Vermont native whose 2010 Rolling Stone profile of U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal ("The Runaway General") led to McChrystal's resignation, was hired by BuzzFeed last spring to cover President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign and had been working for the site's 6-month-old Los Angeles bureau.
News of Hastings' death was met with a variety of conspiracy theories.
According to the Times, he had been working on a story about Jill Kelley, a Florida socialite who recently filed a privacy lawsuit against the Department of Defense and the FBI.
On Wednesday, WikiLeaks claimed Hastings had contacted a lawyer for the anti-secrecy organization shortly before the crash.
"Michael Hastings contacted WikiLeaks lawyer Jennifer Robinson just a few hours before he died, saying that the FBI was investigating him," WikiLeaks wrote on Twitter:
Michael Hastings contacted WikiLeaks lawyer Jennifer Robinson just a few hours before he died, saying that the FBI was investigating him.
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) June 19, 2013
But on Thursday, the FBI said it was conducting no such investigation. "At no time was journalist Michael Hastings ever under investigation by the FBI," the bureau said in a statement to the Burlington Free Press.
Hastings is survived by his wife, Elise Jordan, a journalist and former speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"Michael was a great, fearless journalist with an incredible instinct for the story, and a gift for finding ways to make his readers care about anything he covered from wars to politicians," BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith said in a statement announcing Hastings' death. "He wrote stories that would otherwise have gone unwritten, and without him there are great stories that will go untold."
"Great reporters exude a certain kind of electricity," Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana said in a statement of his own. "The sense that there are stories burning inside them, and that there's no higher calling or greater way to live life than to be always relentlessly trying to find and tell those stories. I'm sad that I'll never get to publish all the great stories that he was going to write."