WAUKESHA – A treasured rite of the holiday season turned into a scene of bloody, violent mayhem late Sunday afternoon as a vehicle plowed into the Waukesha Christmas Parade, leaving more than 20 people injured, including children, and shaking the community, authorities said.
There were some fatalities but a figure was not released as authorities sought to notify families.
Eleven adults and 12 children were ferried to local hospitals.
Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly called the incident a “horrible and senseless act.”
Waukesha Police Chief Dan Thompson said that around 4:39 p.m. a red SUV broke through the parade barriers and headed west bound on Main Street.
“The vehicle struck more than 20 individuals. Some of the individuals were children and there were some fatalities as a result of this incident,” he said.
A suspect vehicle was recovered and a “person of interest” was in custody, the police chief said. People were transported to hospitals via ambulances and police vehicles, he added.
“Very tragic incident, very chaotic,” Thompson said.
Thompson said during the incident “an officer discharged his weapon at the suspect vehicle to try to stop the vehicle. No bystanders were injured as a result of the weapon discharge.”
He added, “It is unknown at this time whether it incident has any nexus to terrorism.”
The incident occurred during one of the city’s biggest and most cherished annual events. A joyous crowd lined both sides of the road, people bundled against the cold.
One video showed the red SUV on the parade route, veering down the street and pulling left behind the Waukesha South High School Black Shirt Band.
Corey Montiho, School District of Waukesha board member, was by Mainstream Bar & Grill when he heard that his daughter’s youth dance team was hit.
“There were pom-poms and shoes and spilled hot chocolate everywhere,” he said. “I had to go from one crumpled body to the other to find my daughter. My wife and two daughters were almost hit. Please pray for everybody. Please pray. My family is safe but many are not. I held one little girl’s head in my hand, she was seizing and she was bleeding out of her ears. I held her mother as she collapsed. Please pray.”
In a Facebook post, the Waukesha Xtreme Dance team thanked those who checked on the safety of team members and their families.
“Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers,” the group said, adding it would provide “an update when we know more.”
Videos and eyewitnesses on social media appear to show the “Milwaukee Dancing Grannies” being struck by the vehicle. Members range in age from their early 50’s to mid-70’s. The only requirement is that members must be grandmothers themselves, the website said.
“Members of the group and volunteers were impacted and we are waiting for word on their conditions,” said a Facebook post from the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies. “Please keep the Grannies, all those injured, and all those who witnessed this horrible event in your thoughts and prayers.”
Angelito Tenorio, a West Allis alderman who is running for Wisconsin state treasurer, said he had just finished marching in the parade with his family and friends and was walking back toward Main Street.
“As we were walking back in between the buildings we saw an SUV crossover, just put the pedal to the metal and just zooming full speed along the parade route. And then we heard a loud bang, and just deafening cries and screams from people who are struck by the vehicle,” Tenorio said. “And then, and then we saw people running away or stopping crying, and there, there are people on the ground who looked like they’d been hit by the vehicle.”
He added, “It just all happened so fast.”
Videos posted to social media, including a live feed of the parade operated by the City of Waukesha, show a red SUV breaking through barriers and speeding into the roadway where the parade was taking place.
In the city’s footage, taken from a distance, the SUV speeds into the parade just behind a school marching band.
A reporter at the scene along West Main Street said that a red SUV came barreling down the street and the crowd could hear the thuds as it struck people, leaving many on the ground.
Some people got up and ran into nearby stores. Many were screaming and crying.
Then police officers ran down the street, telling people to go into the stores and get off the street.
Just prior to the incident, the reporter saw several dance groups in the parade route, with spectators around two rows deep on each side of the road.
Ashlee Coronado, a 12-year-old who attends Waukesha STEM Academy, was at the parade with her mother.
“We were excited to see the truck with the fire and the hot air with it,” she said. “We always get excited for it because it is cold that that warms us. Then right then, a red (vehicle) drove past me and my cousins. He was going very fast and hit a gentleman. At first I thought he was a part of the parade. And then I thought this is real. We were all screaming. We were not even two feet away.”
Kimberlee Coronado said: “We grabbed our kids and got to our cars and got out of there. It was very scary.”
Police moved to shut down several streets in downtown Waukesha. Several different law enforcement agencies were at the scene and up until around 6 p.m. ambulances were seen leaving the area.
Paradegoers were still wandering around the city.
Ald. Don Paul Browne said he had been marching in the front of the parade and was almost home when his wife texted asking if he was OK.
“I am in shock,” he said. “This parade draws people from all over, even Jefferson County. I am numb. It is pretty upsetting.”
He added, “My inclination was to try to help, but that may be the last thing the police would need. The best I can do is be a source for people. … We have to worry about shootings now. It breaks my heart.”
Rep. Sara Rodriguez, who represents parts of Waukesha, marched in the parade with the Waukesha County Democrats. Rodriguez said Sunday night her group had finished marching when the SUV plowed through the crowd.
“I didn’t directly witness the car coming through — we had finished the parade route and so it came after when we were done,” she said. “People were running and screaming and moving out of the way. … My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who’ve been injured.”
Gov. Tony Evers issued a statement that said: “Kathy and I are praying for Waukesha tonight and all the kids, families, and community members affected by this senseless act. I’m grateful for the first responders and folks who acted quickly to help, and we are in contact with local partners as we await more information.”
The parade runs through the downtown area of Waukesha.
Waukesha is celebrating its 125th year with celebrations throughout the year. The parade is always one of the biggest events of the year in the city. The parade is the official kickoff to the holiday season in downtown Waukesha
Cathy Kozlowicz and Kaylee Staral of the Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.
This is a developing story. Check back later for updates.
Kaylee Staral, Evan Casey, Drake Bentley, Sam Hendrickson, Cathy Kozlowicz, Sophie Carson and Chris Kuhagan of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.