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At a Christmas parade, ‘Comfort and Joy’ turns to carnage and fear: ‘There were bodies all over the street’

A red vehicle plowed through a holiday parade in Waukesha, Wis. on Nov. 21. (Video: The City of Waukesha | Facebook)

WAUKESHA, Wis. — The theme of the 12-block parade on Main Street was “Comfort and Joy,” which the people of Waukesha, Wis., sorely needed after so many lonely months, after last year’s annual holiday celebration was outright canceled.

This, Waukesha’s 58th Christmas Parade, was to be a triumph of community, 67 bands and dance teams, Scouts and sports teams — a festive reminder that people still knew how to find life’s pleasures together.

There were twirlers and reindeer (well, costumes anyway), church groups and Model A Ford collectors. The county Republicans and the county Democrats marched, not quite together, but separated by just four parade units, including the 4-H Club and Waukesha North High School’s cheer squad. The parade would start and end with the city police, an honor guard up front, a cruiser bringing up the rear.

At 4:39 p.m. Sunday, with the sun in its golden hour, with children dancing and parents glowing, a red Ford Escape zoomed westbound along the right lane of the parade route. A band was playing “Jingle Bells.”

The speeding SUV — witnesses said it was moving at at least 40 mph — mowed over a series of white sawhorses set up to keep the street safe for marchers.

A couple of moments after the vehicle rushed by, a police officer on foot sprinted after it. The bands played on, but along the sidewalks, spectators turned to each other, got up from their beach chairs. A father pulled his daughter close.

Then a police squad car zipped past, its engine roaring.

For a few seconds, the parade marched on, the roll of snare drums, the chatter of children, the footsteps of the band members lingering in the air.

Then the oxygen seemed to empty out of the parade route, as if a plug had been pulled. Eyes turned down the street, toward one spot, at Main Street and Jasper Avenue, where the Escape had turned into the crowd, into the marchers, into the spectators, 3,500 pounds of steel and aluminum and more than 200 horsepower plowing into people — dozens of people.

Five people were killed. Forty-eight were injured — old folks, parents, children.

Beloved ‘Dancing Grannies’ among those killed after driver plows through Wisconsin Christmas parade

The driver, police said, was Darrell E. Brooks Jr., 39, who authorities said was fleeing from a knife fight. He had been in court this month, charged with battery, domestic abuse and recklessly endangering safety. He had pleaded not guilty and a judge had let him free on bail. Police said they will recommend he be charged with five counts of first-degree intentional homicide.

One day after a driver plowed into a Christmas parade, killing six people, community members in Waukesha, Wis. are processing what happened. (Video: Laura Dyan Kezman, Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

By Monday, the people who lead this small city 20 miles west of Milwaukee had adopted the pained, stilted language that has become a ritual in too many American places. Police and politicians stood before microphones and used the phrases they had heard only in training sessions and on TV from faraway places: “mass casualty protocol,” “additional counselors will be available,” “senseless tragedy.”

But late on an autumn Sunday afternoon, with Thanksgiving just four days away, a few thousand people had united, their faces unmasked, to celebrate each other.

Lindsay Eckert grew up in Waukesha, played in her high school band, performed in countless parades. Now a dance instructor, she led a troupe of about 30 women and girls, ages 7 to 70, everybody in Santa hats, marching along Main Street, pausing every block or so to wave their pompoms and dance to “Sleigh Ride,” the classic Leroy Anderson holiday song.

Everybody had been so eager for this parade, said Eckert, 35. They’d waited at the head of the route, practicing their routine, breaking out in carols.

“It was super happy,” Eckert said. “The energy was amazing. It’s crazy how it all just changed in an instant.”

Corey Montiho, who serves on Waukesha’s school board, and his wife and two daughters had taken their places along the parade route about 3:30 p.m. One of his girls was performing with the Waukesha Xtreme Dance Team.

“It was pumped,” said Montiho, 44. “A mainstream American parade.”

Dan and Becky Faustmann, who own the Guitar For Life Cafe on Main Street downtown, were grabbing coffees at their shop. The parade was the perfect start to the holiday season.

“We just got done with covid, there’s no Packers game on, and everyone is eager to get together,” Dan said.

Lisa Morales, 69, was there with her 3-year-old granddaughter, Naylee, and some neighbors, “laughing and having a ball,” when suddenly, she said, some strangers yanked Naylee and other children out of the street and out of the way of a speeding red SUV.

“Out of the corner of my eye,” Morales said, she saw a police officer abruptly turn anxious and move toward the children, who were swept up onto the sidewalk.

To Morales, it was just a blur of red that zipped by. “Then I realized my granddaughter was in front of me . . . and I was pushed back. It happened so quickly, it was like a movie.”

A few blocks farther down, Eckert’s dance troupe, just ahead of the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies, was prepping for its last dance of the route. Eckert, walking backward at the head of her group, taking pictures, had just made sure that “Sleigh Ride” was cued up for the dance. Her dancers were about to turn the corner to reach the final intersection.

It was 4:39 p.m.

Eckert turned to face her dancers and “pretty much directly in my line of sight . . . all of a sudden, I see an SUV plowing through a group of people, who did not get up.”

“It was just terror,” she said. “I had a parent pull one student directly out of the path. . . . I saw everybody get hit.”

At Guitar for Life Cafe, the Faustmanns saw the Escape whiz by. Becky heard what sounded like balloons popping, then screams and noises she thought didn’t sound real.

It was a vehicle crushing people.

At that moment, Dan opened his cafe’s door, saw a police officer run by and heard what sounded like gunfire. Many people said they thought there was an active shooter along the parade route, according to state Rep. Sara Rodriguez, a Waukesha County resident who had just finished marching with the county Democrats.

But there was no shooter loose on Main Street. City Police Chief Dan Thompson said the gunfire came from a police officer who fired his service weapon at the Escape, trying to stop it. Apparently, no one was shot.

The Escape barreled on, the driver honking his horn and slamming more than 50 people to the ground.

Positioned along the route, Jodi Singsime and her family pulled themselves away from the curb, back toward the building line.

As the SUV turned in toward the marching units, “it didn’t seem real,” said Angela O’Boyle, who was recording the parade on her phone from her balcony above the street. “You’re watching it, but you’re not watching it happen.”

On the street, Singsime could think of only one thing: “Get my family back,” she said. “As we were getting back, I heard — I heard and saw — the people being hit. But what you could do more than seeing is hearing, and, just, that sound was insane.”

Even as the Singsimes scurried back from the street, Jodi saw the Escape plowing into people. “It was just kind of slow motion,” she said.

The sound was what many would remember most vividly.

Angelito Tenorio, a Democratic candidate for state treasurer who was at the parade with his family and campaign manager, heard a loud bang, then “deafening cries and screams,” then “absolute chaos.”

At Vinyl Vault Records on Main Street, Dan Schneiderman, the owner, was standing at his shop window with a co-worker and a couple of friends when suddenly, he said, “all the sound was literally sucked out of my ear and it went in slow motion. I heard the thud-thud-thud and the car screaming past.”

The thuds were people, hit by the Ford.

Schneiderman, 51, saw a pom squad outside his shop, “five feet from my front door. I watched those poor kids get hit by the car. It was [expletive] awful. You can literally see them bouncing off a car. It was a sound I cannot forget.”

After the impact, the SUV sped up, “a lot,” Eckert said. “The driver was hanging out of the car, the windshield was so smashed up he couldn’t see.” He seemed to be trying to get away from police, who were following him, she said.

Eckert yelled to her students: “Get out of the road!”

Her dancers huddled against a building, the Waukesha tattoo parlor, which was closed. They ducked into an alcove alongside the building, trying to block the young students’ view of the carnage. They accounted for everyone in their group, moved to the public library, and called parents to let them know all were safe.

“There were bodies all over the street,” Eckert said. “There was pandemonium. It was amazing, though. People jumped in and started to offer aid. It only takes a couple of people to ruin something like this, but there were so many good people there, too, to pick up the pieces.”

The people who had been hit had been marching with the Grannies, the Xtreme Dance Team and the Waukesha South High School band, or had been spectators lined along the sidewalk, Rodriguez said.

Montiho and his family had stayed along Main Street after his daughter’s performance, watching the other acts. A high school band was passing by when they saw the Escape speed by and plow through the crowd, hitting several of his daughter’s dance teammates.

His daughter and the rest of the family were uninjured.

“Moms, dads, kids,” he said. “It was horrible. They all tried the best they could. I saw bodies and kids and dads not breathing.”

Schneiderman grabbed everyone he could and ushered them into his store, “herding as much people in as I could.”

He saw about 10 people on the ground, “a little boy in front of my store unconscious. Over the police radio, I heard another police officer scream, ‘Shots fired.’ The officer said, ‘Everyone get inside!’ ”

Schneiderman frantically urged more people inside his store.

“I had people pushing their children under my record racks,” he said. He turned off the lights and urged people to hide as far under the racks as they could squeeze.

For nearly an hour, he had about 50 people inside the shop. “We didn’t know if this guy was an active shooter and they didn’t have him at that point,” the shopkeeper said.

Inside, everyone was silent, waiting. “Every single one of them had a look of fear on their face I’ll never forget,” he said. “The most scared I’ve ever seen of a human being.”

Police screamed into the shop, looking to help any injured people or try to reunite families that had gotten split up. All along the street, people found refuge in stores, a church, a library.

Next door to the record shop, at the Guitar for Life Cafe, co-owner Becky Faustmann, who is also a trauma nurse, helped stabilize children as her husband pulled them off the street and into their shop.

Parents screamed for children they had gotten separated from. Becky helped “little girls from the dance squad,” taking one girl out to a police vehicle as the girl’s father agonized over whether to go with his daughter or search for the rest of his family.

Becky also stabilized a little boy who suffered a serious leg injury.

“I said, ‘I’m a nurse,’ ” she said, “and the little boy reached up and held my hand.”

Back outside, as Main Street emptied, Becky saw the things they left behind. A reindeer antlers headband that had been knocked off a child’s head. Backpacks, handbags and the trappings of a parade — candies, beads, hats, folding chairs.

And here and there along Main, a stroller with no child in it.

Into the night, the numbers came into focus: Four women and one man were killed; they ranged in age from 52 to 81. Eighteen children, ages 3 to 16, arrived at Children’s Wisconsin hospital. There were three sets of siblings among them. They had cuts on their faces, bruises, broken bones and in some cases, serious head injuries.

Dozens more people, including a priest and students at Waukesha Catholic School, needed emergency care at five other hospitals.

Jane Kulich, 52, had walked alongside the Citizens Bank float in the parade. A teller at the bank, she had gone to church Sunday morning with her husband, John, then headed to the parade to give out candy to kids. Late in the afternoon, John got a call from his wife’s boss. She had been hit by a car. It wasn’t looking good.

He raced to the hospital, along with the couple’s three adult children. It was too late. Jane was already gone.

The mayor, Shawn Reilly, said the city had suffered “a horrible, senseless tragedy. I walked in the parade at the beginning. I saw all the happy children sitting on the curb. I saw all the happy parents behind their children.”

The sun rose Monday and the governor ordered flags flown at half-staff and the police chief prepared to deliver more details and clergy prepared an evening vigil. And Becky and Dan Faustmann, though they don’t usually open their cafe on Mondays, unlocked the doors, brewed an urn of coffee and warmed up some chili for anyone who might come by.

“I don’t know if I should be open or if I should get out of here,” Dan said. “I just feel lost.”

Bellware and Guarino reported from Waukesha, Wis. Andrea Salcedo in Washington contributed to this report.