SAN DIEGO — A driver lost control and veered onto a sidewalk Monday dotted with homeless tents in downtown San Diego, killing three people and injuring six others, police said.
The driver — whom authorities identified only as a 71-year-old man — was heading through a tunnel underneath a community college campus when he drove his Volvo station wagon up on the sidewalk shortly after 9 a.m., said San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit. The man was arrested on suspicion of driving while impaired.
“For whatever reason, (the driver) veered to the right, went up on the sidewalk, struck multiple pedestrians there and then came back on to the roadway,” Nisleit said. He offered “my deepest condolences,” to the families of those who died.
Three people died at the scene. Five of the six others who were injured were taken to hospitals, including two who were in critical condition, authorities said.
On a typical weekday morning it is a busy area with students walking by, but classes have been online during the coronavirus pandemic. There also are a number of homeless tents lining the sidewalks in the area, including the sidewalk in the tunnel.
The deadly crash highlights the inherent risks to the homeless population in California, where the tents and tarps of homeless people line not only downtown sidewalks but are near ramps where cars accelerate as they enter freeways.
More than 150,000 people are homeless statewide. The number has increased during the coronavirus pandemic that has upended the economy.
Nisleit said homeless people may have moved into the tunnel to get out of rain just before the car plowed through.
“I don’t know if people were sleeping or people were sitting there,” he said.
Lisa Brotzman said she was peering out of a window in her tent just as the car swerved to the right shoulder, “spun out of control” and jumped onto the sidewalk in the tunnel where people were waiting out the rain.
“Someone was screaming, ‘Ahhh! Ahhhh!’” Brotzman told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “Two or three people were yelling and screaming. It was scary.”
The driver got out of his car and tried to help people before identifying himself to police, Nisleit said.
“He was cooperative, (and) did not try to run away,” the chief said, correcting earlier reports from police that he had tried to flee.
Ambulances, five fire engines, a helicopter and more than 60 first-responders responded to the scene near San Diego City College.
“Our crews found, obviously, a tragic incident under the bridge,” said San Diego Fire Department Chief Colin Stowell.