The 58th edition of the Annual Waukesha Holiday Parade in Wisconsin was supposed to be a joyous occasion as the city was returning to celebrate its treasured holiday rite after almost two years.
Dance groups and high school bands participating in the parade, which was cancelled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, were scheduled to roll through the suburbs of historic downtown Waukesha between 4 and 6pm.
The celebrations, however, were cut short after a vehicle ploughed through the Christmas parade killing at least five and injuring over 40 on Sunday, in what appeared to be a deliberate attack.
Corey Montiho, one of the attendants, described the horrific scenes at the parade. Mr Montiho said he went from “one crumpled body to the other” as he looked for his daughter who was among those performing.
“There were pom-poms and shoes and spilled hot chocolate everywhere,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper. “I had to go from one crumpled body to the other to find my daughter. My wife and two daughters were almost hit,” he added.
He pointed out that while his family was safe, many were not so lucky. “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.”
City officials had earlier declined to share the exact fatalities saying that the numbers would be disclosed after the families were notified.
The City of Waukesha, in a statement issued late on Sunday, said: “At this time, we can confirm that five people are deceased and over 40 are injured.”
“However, these numbers may change as we collect additional information,” it added.
A Catholic priest, multiple parishioners and Waukesha Catholic schoolchildren were among those injured, reported ABC affiliate Koco News, citing the Archdiocese of Milwaukee spokeswoman Sandra Peterson.
The incident took place around 4.39pm, when the SUV hit band members and cheerleaders who were marching in close formation. The car hit multiple people and scattered the crowd before driving on.
Jason Kellner had just watched his son, who was participating in the Waukesha South High School marching band, pass by when he saw the red Ford speed towards attendees.
“I’ve never felt a worse feeling; wondering what I’m going to find when I get to my kid,” Mr Kellner told the New York Times as he described the moments when he ran toward his son, who he found unharmed by the side of the road.
“Right now, I’m just angry,” he said. “It seems everywhere we turn, it’s just another violent day in the US.”
Chris Germain, co-owner of the Aspire Dance Centre Studio that had about 70 girls between two and 18 years participate in the parade, said he saw “small children laying all over the road”.
“There were children laying all over the road, there were police officers and EMTs doing CPR on multiple members of the parade,” he told Koco News.
Another attendee, Tyler Kotlarek, told the NYT that the driver seemed to be steering deliberately towards the crowd, though this has not been confirmed by the police.
“He was going from side to side, targeting people,” Mr Kotlarek said. “The car bombed through. He was flying through there going intentionally from left to right.”
Police chief Dan Thompson said his department had taken one person of interest into custody and seized the vehicle. He said he didn’t yet know if there was any connection to terrorism.
A law enforcement officer told CBS News that the suspect was escaping from another scene and was probably fleeing a knife fight before he ran through the parade. The incident did not appear to be an act of terrorism, he told the channel.
More than a dozen units from the fire and police departments were on the scene, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives assisting Waukesha police officials.