A member of a men’s chorus group in South Florida unintentionally slammed into fellow chorists at the start of a Pride parade, killing one and seriously injuring another, the group’s director said Sunday, putting to rest initial speculation that it was a hate crime directed at the gay community.
According to Wilton Manors Vice Mayor Paul Rolli and Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis, the early investigation indicates that it was an accident. The 77-year-old driver was arrested, but no charges were filed and the investigation is still ongoing, according to police. According to a statement issued by Fort Lauderdale Police on Sunday, the elderly driver had ailments that prevented him from walking. He was cooperating with the investigation, and there was no evidence of drugs or alcohol being involved.
The driver and the victims were both members of the Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus, a small 25-member group made up mostly of older men.
“Those injured were Chorus members, and the driver is also a member of the Chorus family. “To the best of my knowledge, this was not an attack on the LGBTQ community,” President Justin Knight said in a statement on Sunday, calling it a “unfortunate accident.” Rolli was on a float in front of the chorus truck, alongside Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis and other city officials at a staging area where the floats were being prepared. Trantalis claimed that when he was told he was next in the parade, the driver of a pickup truck suddenly accelerated, crashing into the victims.
According to police, the driver continued across all lanes of traffic before collapsing into a fence on the other side of the street.
Rolli was on the other side of the float and did not see the crash, but jumped off and ran to the victims. In the midst of the chaos, it was difficult to tell what had occurred.
“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.”
No arrests have been made, according to Fort Lauderdale Police, who are conducting a thorough investigation with the FBI and are “considering and evaluating all possibilities.”
Trantalis, Fort Lauderdale’s first openly gay mayor, initially told reporters that the act was intentional, adding to the confusion on Saturday night.
“It terrified me and everyone around me… I feared it was intentional based on what I saw from only a few feet away,” he said on Twitter on Sunday. “As the facts come together, a picture of an accident in which a truck careened out of control emerges.” Wilton Manors is a close-knit community near Fort Lauderdale with a lively downtown filled with cute shops where people queue for Rosie’s famous hamburgers or to gossip and drink at Georgie’s Alibi Monkey Bar.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz was seen in tears while riding in a convertible during the parade, according to photos and video from the scene. Wasserman Schultz said in a statement Saturday night that she was safe but “deeply shaken and devastated that a life was lost.”
“What happened at this celebration has broken my heart,” she said. “May the memory of a life taken be a blessing.” According to a spokesman for the chorus, the director refused to give interviews, and many members of the small group witnessed the fatal crash and were deeply shaken.
“People like Wilton Manors because the entire community is one big family and that’s how we treat each other… and this has really rattled a lot of people,” Rolli said. “Even if it’s an accident, the loss of a life is tragic.”
June is Pride Month, commemorating the June 1969 police raid on gay patrons at New York’s Stonewall Inn, which sparked an LGBTQ American uprising and served as a catalyst for the gay rights movement.