Driver, 77, plowed into crowd at Florida LGBTQ parade. Police say it was all a tragic accident

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A truck plowed through a crowd at an LGBTQ parade Saturday night — but the 77-year-old man behind the wheel did not intend to hurt anyone, police say.

The man was physically unable to walk in the parade, so his truck was chosen as the lead vehicle. Police say he was inching forward when he accelerated unexpectedly, hitting two pedestrians. One man was killed and the other injured.

The driver knew both men. All three were members of the Fort Lauderdale Men’s Gay Chorus.

Some had wondered whether the driver intentionally hit anyone, but police released statements Sunday saying it was an accident.

“[Saturday’s] incident was a tragic accident, and not a criminal act directed at anyone, or any group of individuals,” Wilton Manors Police Chief Gary Blocker said.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis was just feet away from the accident and told reporters Saturday night he thought the man intentionally drove through the crowd.

On Sunday, Trantalis released a statement saying he was mistaken.

“Last evening, at the start of what was to be a celebration of pride for the LGBT community and commemoration of our hard-won victories for equality, our community faced the worst of tragedies,” he said. “The grief of our LGBT community — and greater Fort Lauderdale as a whole — is palpable.”

Trantalis referred to the shock he felt seeing the tragedy unfold.

“I was an eyewitness to the horrifying events,” he said. “It terrorized me and all around me. I reported what I saw to law enforcement and had strong concerns about what transpired — concerns for the safety of my community. I feared it could be intentional based on what I saw from mere feet away.”

The mayor credited law enforcement with doing a good job figuring out what happened.

“As the facts continue to be pieced together, a picture is emerging of an accident in which a truck careened out of control,” he said. “My heart breaks for all impacted by this tragedy.”

Fort Lauderdale police continue to investigate the fatal crash that interrupted the start of the Wilton Manors Stonewall Parade and Festival around 7 p.m. on Saturday.

Police have not released the names of the driver or the men he hit. Both victims were taken to Broward Health Medical Center, where one died.

The driver was wearing a Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus T-shirt and had a large pride flag on his 2011 white Dodge Ram. The truck was stopped in the staging area, awaiting the start of the parade. As the truck began to edge forward to start the parade, it accelerated, hitting the two pedestrians. It then crossed all traffic lanes and crashed into the fence of a plant nursery on the west side of the street.

A DUI investigation was conducted on site and showed no signs of impairment, Fort Lauderdale Detective Ali Adamson said. The driver has not been arrested and has been cooperating with police, she added. No further details were given on the driver’s health condition Sunday.

All three men were members of the Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus, said Justin Knight, the group’s president.

The group posted a message on Facebook Sunday morning: “We are deeply saddened by the tragic death and injuries that occurred as a result of an unfortunate accident at the start of the Stonewall Pride Parade. As the Chorus family mourns together, we thank the community for their love and understanding..”

Knight declined to comment Sunday.

The driver came within inches of hitting a convertible that was to drive Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz through a parade route that was to start in Fort Lauderdale and move through Wilton Manors, the gay-friendly town to the north. Wasserman Schultz was seen in tears minutes after the incident as she was comforted by Congressman Ted Deutch, D-Fla.

Michael Albetta, a Fort Lauderdale resident and regional director of the Florida LGBTQ Democratic Caucus, saw it all firsthand.

Albetta was at the front of the parade standing next to Trantalis and Deutch.

“I was about 30 feet away when this vehicle rushed by me,” he said. “He must have been doing 50 mph. All I saw was bodies flying up in the air. One man’s laying on the ground with blood all over the place. And I saw the truck take this one guy through the fence. It was horrific.”

Albetta says he was traumatized by the incident.

“There was a whoosh and there was a bump, bump,” he said. “Those were the bodies he was hitting. I was just trying to get people out of the way. Everyone was in shock. It’s something you see on TV, not in person. It was a very ugly, surreal moment.”

Albetta was grateful to finally get home that night safe and sound.

“When I put my key in my door ... I was so grateful to be home and happy and safe,” he said. “You read about this happening in other places. You never think it’s going to happen in your hometown.”

Dr. Robert Griffin, the executive minister of Sunshine Cathedral, witnessed the accident. “My husband and I were walking back home as the parade was beginning,” he said. “It all happened within a flash. We want to give the community an opportunity to pause and to grieve to begin the healing process. We want to bring people together for a time of prayer and reflection.”

Wilton Manors Mayor Scott Newton released a statement Sunday afternoon commending the FBI and local police agencies for their hard work investigating the tragic accident.

“Our community remains heartbroken for the innocent life lost and the gentleman who was injured,” Newton said. “Our thoughts and prayers remain with their loved ones. I want to thank the Wilton Manors Entertainment Group, the volunteers, and everyone in attendance for their patience and understanding in the hours that followed the accident and now, as we heal as one community.”

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