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Elderly woman backs SUV into church group; 3 killed, 4 injured

A retired EMT described the scene as "horror;" the 79-year-old accidentally accelerated in reverse and struck people standing together talking in the parking lot

By Richard Dymond
The Bradenton Herald

MANATEE, Fla. — Three people are dead and four others seriously injured after a Palmetto woman accidentally backed her SUV into a group of people leaving an 11 a.m. church service Sunday at a Bradenton mobile home park, according to the Florida Highway Patrol and witnesses.


That’s how Sugar Creek Estates resident and retired EMT Muriel Watts described the tableau of injuries that lay before her as she raced to the clubhouse parking lot. “People on the ground bleeding. It was a horrible sight.”

FHP reported fatalities included: Johanna Dijkhoff, 80; Margaret Vanderlaan, 72; and Wilhemina Paul, all of Bradenton. They were all taken to Blake Medical Center.

FHP reported those sustaining serious injuries included: an 89-year-old man; 71-year-old man; and 75-year-old woman, all of Bradenton; and a 67-year-old woman from Ontario, Canada. All were taken to Manatee Memorial Hospital.

The first victim Watts came to was a woman lying face down, she said.

“She was in her 70s or 80s,” Watts said. “I knew she was gone. I could find no pulse. I had to bodily remove her sister, who was on the ground over her.”

Watts then helped a man “with tire tracks from his ankles to armpits,” she said.

“The rest had bloody heads and bloody knees,” Watts said. “But there was one other woman who I couldn’t at first find a pulse for, but finally did. I rubbed her back.”

The accident happened at 11:23 a.m. Sunday in the Sugar Creek Country Club 55-and-over mobile home community, 3333 26th Ave. E. Manatee off Belinda Circle and Clubhouse Drive in Bradenton, according to the FHP report. The community is off 26th Avenue West just east of Mixon Fruit Farms.

A white Chevrolet Tahoe SUV driven by a 79-year-old woman, with her husband as passenger, backed from a parking space at Sugar Creek Country Club, pulled forward because it needed more room to clear another parked vehicle, then began backing again, according to FHP. In doing so, the rear of the SUV struck seven pedestrians standing in the parking lot, according to the FHP report.

The SUV continued to travel east over a curb before colliding with small trees and ending up in a canal partially submerged, according to FHP crash investigator Keil Nanan.

According to Nanan and witnesses, the woman thought she had put her SUV into drive but when she revved the engine, the vehicle went backward and struck people standing talking with each other.

The husband and wife were rescued uninjured, Nanan reported. At about 2:30 p.m., as the Chevrolet Tahoe was pulled out of Sugar Creek, water gushed out of it.

Later, the driver of the SUV sat on a bench near the clubhouse with her husband after the rescue. “It was an accident,” she said.

A church service held for Sugar Creek Estates residents and residents of nearby Estates and Resorts parks had just let out when the accident happened, said FHP Trooper Brett Fitzpatrick. “Instead of going forward, she backed up uncontrollably into a group of people standing and visiting behind her,” Fitzpatrick said.

No charges have been filed but the investigation is ongoing, Fitzpatrick said. Alcohol is not suspected as a contributing factor to the accident, according to FHP.

FHP Cpl. Ronnie Highsmith is the homicide investigator

Sugar Creek residents held a candlelight vigil at 6:15 p.m. at the flagpole in front of the clubhouse, said Tom Watts, president of the homeowners association.

“As we get older we have to watch how we drive,” said Jerry Johnson, a Sugar Creek resident. “This is terrible.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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