FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida: A member of a men’s chorus group unintentionally slammed into fellow chorists at the start of a Pride parade in South Florida, killing one member of the group and seriously injuring another, the group's director said on Sunday (Jun 20), correcting initial speculation that it was a hate crime directed at the gay community.
Wilton Manors Vice Mayor Paul Rolli and Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis said the early investigation shows it was an accident. The 77-year-old driver was taken into custody, but police said no charges have been filed and the investigation is ongoing.
The elderly driver had ailments that prevented him from walking, according to a statement Sunday from Fort Lauderdale Police, who said he was cooperating with the investigation and there was no evidence drugs or alcohol was involved.
"The early investigation now indicates it looks like it was a tragic accident, but nobody’s saying finally what it is,” Rolli told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
The driver and the victims were a part of the Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus family, a small 25-member group of mostly older men.
“Our fellow Chorus members were those injured and the driver is also a part of the Chorus family. To my knowledge, this was not an attack on the LGBTQ community,” President Justin Knight said in a statement Sunday, calling it “an unfortunate accident.”
Rolli was on the float in front of the chorus truck along with Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis and other city officials at a staging area where the floats were being readied. Trantalis said the driver of a pickup truck suddenly accelerated when he was told he was next in the parade, crashing into the victims.
The driver continued across all lanes of traffic, ultimately crashing into a fence on the other side of the street, police said.
Rolli was on the other side of the float and didn’t witness the crash, but jumped off immediately and ran to the victims. In the confusion, it was unclear what happened.
“People were really distraught and some people were crying,” said Rolli, who explained that the crash happened in an area where the floats were lining up, so there weren’t as many parade-goers. “I was getting phone calls from people I knew at the other end waiting for the parade saying, ‘Is this true? Is that true, do we have anything to worry about?’ You don’t know at that point.”
Fort Lauderdale Police said no arrests have been made saying they are conducting a thorough investigation with the FBI, nothing in a statement they are “considering and evaluating all possibilities.”
Trantalis, who is Fort Lauderdale's first openly gay mayor, initially told reporters the act was deliberate, adding to the confusion Saturday night.
“It terrorised me and all around me ... I feared it could be intentional based on what I saw from mere feet away,” he said in a Twitter statement Sunday. “As the facts continue to be pieced together, a picture is emerging of an accident in which a truck careened out of control.”
Wilton Manors is a tight-knit community near Fort Lauderdale with a vibrant downtown filled with cute shops, where people line up for Rosie’s famous hamburgers or to gossip and drink at Georgie’s Alibi Monkey Bar.
Photos and video from the scene showed Democratic US Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz in tears while in a convertible at the parade.
In a statement Saturday night, Wasserman Schultz said she was safe but “deeply shaken and devastated that a life was lost.”
“I am so heartbroken by what took place at this celebration,” she said. “May the memory of the life lost be for a blessing.”
A spokesman for the chorus said the director did not want to give interviews, adding that many members of the small group witnessed the fatal crash and were deeply shaken.
“The reason people like Wilton manors is the whole community is one big family and that’s how we treat each other ... and this has really rattled a lot of people,” said Rolli. “Even if it’s an accident, just the loss of a life.”
June is Pride Month, commemorating a June 1969 uprising that followed a police raid targeting gay patrons at the Stonewall Inn in New York. It was a catalyst for the gay rights movement.