‘It can happen at any point’

Mardi Gras parade accident leaves children injured, city reeling

By Crystal Cole
Posted 3/3/17

For the thousands of people who lined Highway 59 on Fat Tuesday for a day of revelry, a cruel reminder of how quickly tragedy can strike lurked in the shadows.

The annual Mardi Gras parade in …

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‘It can happen at any point’

Mardi Gras parade accident leaves children injured, city reeling

Posted

UPDATE:

As the week begins, I wanted to pass along good news that another one of our Gulf Shores students has been released from the hospital which means we have one student at the University of South Alabama Women's and Children's Medical Center and one student at Sacred Heart. Although they have endured much and have a long way to go in their recoveries, with healing and rehabilitation ahead, they’ve made remarkable progress. We’re very grateful for their improvement. Please keep all 12 injured students and their families in your thoughts and prayers. I just can’t say enough about the outpouring of love and concern that everyone has shown. On behalf of these families and our Baldwin County Public Schools family, thank you very much. I hope your week is safe and blessed.

Eddie Tyler,

Superintendent

For the thousands of people who lined Highway 59 on Fat Tuesday for a day of revelry, a cruel reminder of how quickly tragedy can strike lurked in the shadows.

The annual Mardi Gras parade in Gulf Shores was cancelled when an SUV accelerated into the high school’s marching band. Twelve students, both middle and high school-aged, were transported to area hospitals.

The vehicle in question, a white 2008 Ford Expedition, was driven by a 73-year-old man who was taken in for questioning. He is cooperating with police officers, giving statements and blood samples voluntarily. It is not believed to be an intentional act.

Grant Brown, public information officer for the city of Gulf Shores, said the vehicle was part of the American Legion Honor Guard as part of their parade entry.

“What we know — the band is the head of the parade and walked out onto Highway 59 and started their way south,” Brown said. “The vehicle that was staged behind the band followed onto Highway 59 and then something went terribly wrong. That vehicle, which was behind the band, accelerated and struck the children that were in the band in front of them.”

The scene immediately following the event was gruesome, but attendees quickly stepped in to help. Friends, neighbors and seasonal tourists alike rushed in to aid and comfort the children in any way they could until help arrived.

Baldwin County Superintendent Eddie Tyler was visibly upset when speaking about the incident at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

“We’ve got a great family — law enforcement, city of Gulf Shores, Orange Beach,” Tyler said. “This is a special county. It’s difficult. I was there five years as principal. It’s a special place. I can’t say enough about Dr. Rosado and his assistants. The band director that stepped up and has done a stellar job from the time this incident happened to communicating with us after the fact.”

At the time of print deadline, all eight children who had been treated at South Baldwin Regional Medical Center had been released. Two children remain at Sacred Heart in Pensacola, one at Baptist Hospital in Pensacola and another who was airlifted to USA Medical Center in Mobile.

Brown said Tuesday three remain in critical, but stable condition.

Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said he spoke with Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft when making his decision to move forward with his city’s Mardi Gras parade.

“This is a tribute to the kids,” Kennon said. “We want everyone to know that we are with them in prayer and that everything is going to be okay.”

Officers from both cities’ police forces carried the Gulf Shores High School marching band banner at the head of the Orange Beach parade.

Tyler said there would be counseling services in place at the schools for anyone needing support after the traumatic event.

Gulf Shores Police Chief Edward Delmore said with any investigation of a similar event, the police would look at the human factors as well as equipment failures.

“Part of the investigation now is focusing on the equipment, what the essentially black box within that vehicle will tell us about the event,” Delmore said. “We combine all of those things to come up with a conclusion of what actually happened. Not to mention, we are looking at video of the incident and witness statements as well. Again, as you can imagine, that all takes time to put all of those things together and figure out the exact sequence of events.”

Two local television outlets, Local15 and WKRG, are reporting president of the Military Officers Association of America Larry Rathbun of Fairhope was the driver, although police had not confirmed the identity prior to press time.

District Attorney Bob Wilters said his office will not make any decisions on whether charges will be brought against the driver until the investigation is complete. He added there was a lot of information he felt could not be shared with the media and the public because it might interfere with the integrity of the investigation.

Delmore said the decision to cancel the parade wasn’t made until all of the victims had been transported from the scene so as to coordinate an orderly removal of the attendees. Traffic was opened up southbound only on Highway 59, but the section of highway from 19th Avenue to Clubhouse Drive remained closed until almost 4 p.m.

The story put the small island town in the national spotlight, and public support came in by the buckets Tuesday, from local businesses changing their marquees, to words of comfort, to the Ohio State University marching band sending a photo of itself forming hearts on social media.

As a further show of support, a GoFundMe account had been set up by Gulf Shores parent Matt Willis to help pay for the costs of instruments damaged in the accident.

“They lost many of their instruments and we are trying to do everything we can to help these kids get through this tragic accident,” Willis wrote. “One of the best ways to get through this is to get them all back playing their music again. These kids are heartbroken, scared and in shock from this event. Mr. Mixon is their band director and will be spending a lot of time consoling these kids and getting them back on track. So I want to do my part to get the word out and take the stress of worrying about how they will be able to pay for all these instruments they have lost.”

As of Friday morning, $30,645 had been raised by the effort in just under 16 hours.

For now, according to Brown, all that can be done by the public is to give the city and the families time to cope and regroup.

“Hug your child tonight, hug your kid tonight,” Brown said. “Make sure that they know that something can just happen with a festive day that goes incredibly bad. And it can happen at any point.”