Whoosh. That’s what Nicholas Coppola vividly remembers as the truck barreled past him, after striking three pedestrians, and then careening across the road into a plant nursery.
“I was rattled. I’m still reeling from it,” he said. “It was a very surreal moment.”
He and his close friend Kevin Muth were on the passenger side of Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s car as the tragic accident unfolded.
They were just a foot away as the out-of-control truck crossed the street.
“There was a thud of the driver hitting somebody. Then I heard another thud, and a body flew up in the air. There was never any attempt to break,” Muth said. “It was just a constant revving up of the engine, and the next thing you know, it crossed the street.”
For Coppola though he first heard the truck ram through the fence from the staging area in Fort Lauderdale High School’s parking lot.
“I actually felt the wind of the truck pass me,” he said. The truck also narrowly missed Wasserman Schultz’s car as well.
Days later Muth and Coppola were still shaken up.
“It was frightening. I've been having lots of difficulties concentrating on stuff. I just keep replaying it, hearing it, the screams, and fear in everybody's eyes,” Muth said. “That thud was horrible. The worst part was seeing the bodies, hit and thrown, and fall into the ground.”
The accident occurred about 6:57 p.m. Saturday, June 19 on Northeast 4th Avenue just across the Wilton Drive bridge. Both Muth and Coppola initially suspected the worst: someone had intentionally terrorized the LGBT community.
“At that moment, unfortunately, I really thought that was our worst nightmare come true,” Coppola said.
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis jumped to that conclusion. Speaking to Local 10 News within 15 minutes of the incident, he declared, “This was a terrorist attack against the LGBT community. This is exactly what it is. Hardly an accident. It was deliberate. It was premeditated.”
The incident took place a week after the fifth anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting. This also happened a week after the vandalism of a new LGBT crosswalk in Delray Beach where a 20-year-old man had used his truck to do a “burnout” over the artwork leaving two dark skid marks.
Other public officials, like Wilton Manors City Commissioner Chris Caputo, though weren’t so sure.
“From the beginning, everything I personally saw and heard led me to believe it was a horribly tragic accident and not a terrorist attack,” he said. “Out of an abundance of caution, and to allow for a proper investigation, the City of Wilton Manors exercised restraint in its communication.”
According to the Fort Lauderdale Police Department the driver had “ailments” that prevented him from walking the duration of the parade and so he was instead selected to drive a vehicle.
“As the vehicle began to move forward in anticipation for the start of the parade, the vehicle accelerated unexpectedly, striking two pedestrians,” a statement from the FLPD read. “After striking the pedestrians, the driver continued across all lanes of traffic, ultimately crashing into the fence of a business on the west side of the street.”
Meanwhile at the other end of the parade route in the heart of Wilton Manors few people knew what was happening except there was a delay in the parade.
“As we walked back, it seemed so many people were unaware of it, which I think was a good thing,” Coppola said. “It didn't cause any kind of panic, which I was glad about. Because you know, with that kind of crowd, God forbid, something like that happens, it could just make a very bad situation that much worse.”
Muth and Coppola, who both live in Delray Beach, are veterans of Pride parades, marching in more than 15 of them through the years.
“I always felt safe,” Coppola said. “I mean even in New York City with the crowds, I felt comfortable.”
This year they were going to march with Congressman Ted Deutch’s contingent. They had just greeted Wasserman Schultz when the accident occurred.
“Everybody was talking with Debbie,” Muth recalled.
James Fahy, 75, was the victim who was killed in the accident. Jerry Vroegh, 67, was injured and has since been discharged from Broward Health Medical Center. A third man, Gary Keating, 69, sustained minor injuries and was treated on site.
The driver of the white Dodge Ram is Fred Johnson, Jr. All four men are members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Fort Lauderdale and were participating in the parade.
“This was a horrible accident and I offer my sincere regrets to all those who were impacted by this tragic event,” Johnson, 77, said in a statement through the chorus. “I love my Chorus family and the community and would never do anything to intentionally harm anyone. Please know that I hold my fellow Chorus member, Jim Fahy, in my heart forever and offer my condolences to his friends and family.”
Wilton Manors Police Chief Gary Blocker has also confirmed the incident was an accident even though the Fort Lauderdale Police Department continues to investigate.