WAUKESHA — A joyous scene of marching bands and children dancing in Santa hats and waving pompoms turned deadly in an instant, as an SUV sped through barricades and into a Christmas parade in Waukesha on Sunday, killing at least five people and injuring more than 40 others in a horrifying scene captured by the city’s livestream and the cellphones of onlookers.
One video showed a woman screaming, "Oh my God!" repeatedly as a group of young dancers was struck Sunday. A father talked of going "from one crumpled body to the other" in search of his daughter.
Another video shows a young child dancing in the street as the SUV speeds by, just a few feet from her, before it hurtles into parade participants a few hundred feet ahead. One video, of dancers with pompoms, ends with a group of people tending to a girl on the ground.
The city of Waukesha posted on its social media accounts late Sunday that it could confirm at least five died and more than 40 were injured, while noting that it was still collecting information. The city's statement also noted that many people took themselves to hospitals. The city did not release any additional information about those who died.
The Milwaukee Dancing Grannies posted on its Facebook page early Monday that some of its members were among the dead. The group’s profile describes them as a “group of grannies that meet once a week to practice routines for summer and winter parades.”
“Our group was doing what they loved, performing in front of crowds in a parade putting smiles on faces of all ages, filling them with joy and happiness,” the post said.
“Those who died were extremely passionate Grannies. Their eyes gleamed ... joy of being a Grannie. They were the glue ... held us together.”
A "person of interest" was in custody, and a “suspect vehicle” was recovered, Waukesha Police Chief Dan Thompson said, but on Sunday he gave no details about the person or any possible motive.
Citing a law enforcement official briefed on the matter, The Associated Press on Monday morning reported that investigators are examining whether the SUV driver may have been fleeing from a crime when he crashed into the paradegoers.
The investigators were questioning a person in custody about that incident, which the official described as an altercation involving a knife.
The official, who cautioned the investigation was still in the early stages and was continuing to develop, could not discuss the investigation publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
The investigation was being assisted by the Wisconsin Department of Justice.
"What took place in Waukesha today is sickening, and I have every confidence that those responsible will be brought to justice," Attorney General Josh Kaul, the state's top law enforcement officer, tweeted.
Fire Chief Steve Howard said emergency crews took 11 adults and 12 children to local hospitals. He did not provide further information on the injuries, nor the deaths. Thompson said more information would be released after families are notified.
Thompson confirmed that shots were fired during the incident, but said police believe none of them were fired from the SUV. An officer fired several shots at the SUV, trying to stop the vehicle. No bystanders were hit with gunfire. Thompson declined to say whether police shot the SUV driver.
While the scene had been deemed “safe and secure,” people were still being asked to avoid the downtown area Sunday night, Thompson said. Earlier, police had issued a shelter-in-place order. Thompson said that was mainly because of the active crime scene, and the order was no longer in effect Sunday night.
Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly said what should have been a community celebration turned into a scene of “horror.”
“Today we experienced a horrible, senseless tragedy,” Reilly said. “My heart goes out to all those affected by this senseless act.”
It’s unknown whether the act of violence was motivated by terrorism, Thompson said.
The Waukesha school district canceled classes Monday and said in a notice on its website that extra counselors would be on hand for students and staff. The parade's list of entries included cheer, dance and band entries associated with district schools.
Gov. Tony Evers said he and his wife, Kathy, were "praying for Waukesha tonight and all the kids, families, and community members affected by this senseless act."
Just before 4:40 p.m., a red SUV broke through barriers at the intersection of Main and Gaspar streets, Thompson said. The vehicle sped directly through the route of the parade, close to children marching in the procession and families watching from the curb, according to a city of Waukesha livestream of the event and another video. About a minute and 20 seconds after the SUV, police squad cars drove through the same area.
One video shows the SUV striking what appears to be members of a marching band and several others along the parade route before driving on. The sound of the marching band heard before the SUV approaches is replaced by screams.
Corey Montiho, a Waukesha School District board member, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that his daughter’s dance team was hit by the SUV.
“(There) were pom-poms and shoes and spilled hot chocolate everywhere. I had to go from one crumpled body to the other to find my daughter,” he said. “My wife and two daughters were almost hit. Please pray for everybody. Please pray.”
Chris Germain, co-owner of the Aspire Dance Center studio, had about 70 people in the parade ranging from as young as 2 being pulled in wagons to age 18. Germain, whose 3-year-old daughter was in the parade, said he was driving at the head of their entry when he saw a maroon SUV that "just blazed right past us." A police officer ran past in chase. Germain said he jumped out of his own SUV and gathered the girls who were with him to safety.
Then he walked forward to see the damage.
"There were small children laying all over the road, there were police officers and EMTs doing CPR on multiple members of the parade," he said.
Angelito Tenorio, a West Allis alderman who is running for Wisconsin state treasurer, said he was watching the parade with his family when they saw the SUV come speeding into the area.
“Then we heard a loud bang,” Tenorio said. “And after that, we just heard deafening cries and screams from the crowd, from the people at the parade. And people started rushing, running away with tears in their eyes crying.”
Tenorio said he saw about 10 people, children and adults, on the ground who appeared to have been hit by the vehicle.
“It just happened so fast,” he said. “It was pretty horrifying.”
Waukesha City Council member Cory Payne said he talked with multiple friends who saw the “chaotic” incident first hand. He said a nurse was left “completely devastated” after watching someone die in front of her. She did not wish to speak to the media.
“There (were) many people — or at least a few people — that were completely nonresponsive,” Payne said. “And then several others that were desperately in need of medical attention.”
Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow called the events “horrific.” He had just left the parade with his wife when he heard the sirens.
“This is an unspeakable tragedy, affecting us all as we work to overcome an extremely challenging two years and resume our cherished holiday traditions,” Farrow said.
Payne said now is a time for his community to come together and support each other.
“This is all still so fresh,” Payne said. “Everybody wants a moment to kind of take this in and make sure all their families are OK, make sure everybody’s safe and praying for the ones that aren’t. It’s a tragic, tragic thing right now.”
A Catholic priest, multiple parishioners and Waukesha Catholic schoolchildren were among those injured, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee spokeswoman Sandra Peterson said.
The parade, held each year on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, is sponsored by the city's Chamber of Commerce. This year's, the 59th, had the theme of "comfort and joy."
Associated Press reporters Scott Bauer, Mike Householder and Doug Glass, and State Journal reporter Emily Hamer contributed to this report.