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Gov't investigating off-road racing crash

August 16, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
The federal Bureau of Land Management is opening an investigation into the deadly off-road racing accident that killed eight people and left several others injured Saturday. The agency will be looking at other off-road events as well. Family and friends of the victims killed in the Mojave Desert racing crash question if the tragedy could have been prevented.

The accident happened Saturday night during the California 200 off-road race in the Soggy Dry Lake bed near Lucerne Valley.

Just two miles into the start of the race, a truck jumped over an area known as "the rockpile," lost control and barreled into the crowd, pinning several people under the vehicle. There were no guardrails separating the crowd from the track, and many spectators were mere feet away from the trucks racing by at up to 100 mph.

It took rescue crews more than half an hour to reach the remote location. Spectators, including off-duty police and firefighters, helped the injured and placed blankets over the dead.

"When they covered Andrew up, it was so hard. It was really hard to leave him like that," said Amanda Jones, best friend of 22-year-old Andrew Therrien, who was killed in the crash.

Therrien, a Riverside resident, was standing in the path of the truck.

"The truck bounced right into the air, smacked Andrew right down and went straight in the air and smacked everybody, and I just saw bodies flying," Jones described.

According to witnesses, Therrien pushed his 3-year-old daughter and another boy out of harm's way when the truck plunged into the crowd.

"I owe my son's life as well as many others, including his daughter, they were inches away from him and he had to save their lives," said Derek Cox who was at the race. "He's a hero in my book and always will be."

"It just looked like a lot of people standing too close to the race tracks to me. Those things are going too fast, and you've got to get back," Therrien's father said, adding that he wishes that the rules were better enforced.

The land the race took place on is owned by the BLM, which gave race organizers with Mojave Desert Racing permission to hold the event. According to the BLM, it is the responsibility of the race organizer, MDR, to enforce the safety rules.

The BLM released the following statement Sunday:

"The BLM is saddened by the tragedy at last night's race in the Johnson Valley OHV open area and offers condolences to the families of the victims. When permitting such races, our first priority is safety for all involved."

The BLM announced that it will launch an official review of the deadly crash. BLM spokeswoman Jan Bedrosian said in a statement Monday that the agency is also cooperating with other law enforcement agencies in the investigation and reviewing all off-road vehicle events in the California desert for safety.

The permits obtained by MDR require racers to slow to 15 mph when they're within 50 feet of the fans. Also, the permit states that no more than 300 spectators could attend the event.

According to witness accounts, thousands of people were stretched along the 50-mile race course.

MDR released the following statement on their website:

"MDR offers its sincere condolences and prayers to all those affected by the incident in Lucerne Valley. We would like to thank all those individuals who helped at the scene."

Keith Carty lost his longtime best friend Brian Wolfin, 27, of Escondido. The two men were at the race to celebrate Wolfin's new job.

"There was just carnage," Carty said. "That's the best way to put it. I don't want to go too graphic. There was definitely just really broken people, is a good way to put it. Brian was probably the worst one, and the first thing that I thought of was what's his son Seth and what's his daughter Sarah going to do?"

In addition to Therrien and Wolfin, the other victims were identified as:

  • Dustin Malson, 24, of Ventura.

  • Danica Frantzich, 20, of Las Vegas.

  • Anthony Sanchez, 23, of Escondido.

  • Aaron Farkas, 25, of Escondido.

  • Zachary Freeman, 24, of Fillmore.

  • Michael Dickinson, 34, of Spring Valley.

The driver of the truck, 28-year-old Brett Sloppy of San Marcos, was not injured in the crash. The California Highway Patrol said that alcohol was not a factor and they have no plans to charge him.

Sloppy posted a message on his Facebook page apologizing to those involved in the tragic crash.

"Thank you to all my friends for sticking with me even through these tragic times. I love you all," he posted.

Sloppy went on to post, "So incredibly lost and devastated. My thoughts and prayers go out to all the families and friends."

Of the 12 injured, paramedics transported six people - five adults and a child - to Loma Linda University Medical Center. Hospital officials said that four of the six patients still remain hospitalized, but they're all in stable condition, but their injuries are not life threatening.

Travis Bonnar is recovering in the hospital from a broken neck, a leg injury and several broken ribs.

Still, his wife, Jenny Bonnar, said she thinks the event was as safe as it could be.

"Accidents happen, and from what I've heard from everybody, I don't know if a barrier would have made a difference, it was an accident," she said.

Ron Matthews, an off-road racing enthusiast, said he spoke with the owner of the race Sunday.

"She's very shook up," Matthews said. "It's a tragic accident. It should have never happened, but people have to use their common sense."

Matthews explained that there were signs around the track warning people to stay back. One sign read, "Pit Area. Stay back 125 feet from race course."

He said that there are often so many people at the race that no one obeys the warning.

"Unless you're a cop with a badge, people don't want to listen to you," Matthews said.

AP contributed to this report.


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