Fla. man crashes into storefront, injuring eight

85-year-old may have experienced a medical emergency before crashing his SUV

By Linda Trischitta and Wayne K. Roustan
Sun Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A heavyweight Cadillac SUV driven by an 85-year-old man exploded into a dry cleaners Friday morning, injuring eight people, severing gas and water lines and forcing nearby merchants — along with cats and dogs — to evacuate.

"We felt something go boom, blow up," said Cheribin Charite, who was inside the DryClean USA store at 749 SE 17th St. when the black Escalade came barreling through around 9 a.m. "We don't know what happened. I looked and there was a car inside."

Charite tried to flee the chaos. "I kept banging [into things] and hit myself," he said.

At least one person injured by the crash was inside the store and suffered serious injuries, said Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Tim Heiser. Another was a bystander who may have been overcome by heat.

Fort Lauderdale police are investigating. Detective Tracy Figone said the unidentified driver, who had to be removed from the wreck, and other patients were all taken to Broward Health Medical Center.

No citations had yet been issued Friday morning, Figone said.

The crash ruptured gas and water lines, Heiser said. Merchants waited outside their businesses until the leaks were contained.

One of those was Robert Sassano, manager of Barkers Pet Resort a few doors away.

"I heard a noise while I was outside, like a real big bang," he said.

He and his employees evacuated the pet center and herded 50 cats and dogs into an outdoor walled courtyard, where they waited until allowed back indoors.

Paramedics ferried the injured to waiting ambulances and the Escalade was towed from the store with customers' clothes draped on its hood and clinging to its undercarriage.

"I never saw an incident like this," said Raj Thiagarajan, who manages the nearby Harbordale Liquors.

Longtime customer Elena Brie worried about the family who owned DryClean USA. "I hope everything is going to be okay for them," she said.

According to the Storefront Safety Council, a group that advocates for barriers to protect businesses from runaway cars, more than 50 percent of South Florida's vehicle-into-building crashes result from the driver hitting the wrong pedal. Nationally, that figure is 40 percent.

"South Florida has a larger percentage of drivers over 70 having these accidents, and a larger percentage of them than the national average are having accidents where they mistake the gas for the brake," the council's Rob Reiter said.

Storefront crashes occur 60 times a day in the U.S. and about 20 times each week in Palm Beach, Broward, Miami Dade and Monroe counties, based on data Reiter has gathered since 2013. Storefront crashes kill up to 500 nationwide and injure 4,000 each year.

South Florida has seen a spate of such crashes recently.

On Wednesday, a 68-year-old woman mistook drive for reverse, drove her Lexus onto a Miramar shopping plaza sidewalk and grazed a pedestrian, police said.

None of the customers in the Divine Touch salon in Lauderhill were harmed on April 6 when a woman pushed the gas instead of the brake, fire officials said.

Patients, staff and visitors were also lucky on March 8, when no one was hurt after a driver crashed into Broward Health Imperial Point's emergency room. On March 31, at a Pembroke Pines' chiropractor's office, a woman, 70, crashed her Honda through the empty office's glass façade, police said.

On Feb. 26 in Miami-Dade County, two such accidents sent people to hospitals: A bus collided with an SUV and crashed into a storefront. Responders treated 25 people. That same day, a car crashed into a North Miami home and two people were hospitalized, according to news reports.

Reiter says older drivers aren't the sole cause of smashed buildings and bruised pedestrians.

"You still have crashes where the car just leaves the roadway, perhaps from a collision with another car or driver medical issues," Reiter said. "About 20 percent of storefront crashes nationally involve DUIs, and those drivers tend to be younger than 70."

In July or August, Orange County commissioners in Orlando will vote on a proposed ordinance that mandates installation of barriers in front of day care centers. Lily Quintus, 4, was killed and others were injured there a year ago when a vehicle crashed into her day care.

©2015 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

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