FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The 77-year-old driver who accidentally slammed his truck into fellow members of a gay chorus group, killing one and injuring two others, said Monday that he was devastated by the crash at the start of a Pride parade in South Florida.
Fred Johnson, a member of the Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus, a tight knit ensemble of about 25 mostly older men, suddenly accelerated forward in his pickup, killing James Fahy, 75, and injuring Jerry Vroegh, 57, who was released from the hospital Monday. Gary Keating was treated at the scene for minor injuries, according to a statement from Fort Lauderdale police.
“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,” Johnson said in a statement.
Fort Lauderdale police also said Monday that all evidence indicates it was a terrible accident, noting Johnson was fully cooperating with the investigation and there was no evidence that drugs or alcohol were involved.
Crowd-goers waved flags and Mardi Gras beads Saturday night, anticipating what should have been a celebration of life and love South Florida gay community. But festivities quickly turned into terror as gleeful cheers were drowned by the sounds of sirens and crying children.
Witness Michael Albetta, regional director for Florida LGBTQ+ Democratic Caucus, was about to walk the parade route alongside U.S. Congressman Ted Deutch when he heard the truck’s engine unexpectedly revving.
“You hear the engine roaring and galloping with more speed. All of a sudden you heard ‘thump, thump, thump,’ and those were the bodies he was hitting and he just crashed right through the nursery,” Albetta said.
He said the truck narrowly missed U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s vehicle, somehow jumped the curb and came straight down on the victims, before careening into a fence on the opposite side of the road.
In the initial aftermath, parade participants and witnesses didn’t know want to think. A visibly shaken Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis said it was a terrorist act on the gay community. On Sunday, he said he was traumatized by what he witnessed and clarified it was an accident.
The parade route turned into pandemonium as participants and witnesses pieced together what had happened. Parade goers waiting at the end of the route heard the commotion and were frantically calling friends near the accident at the front of the route asking if they should flee.
A heavy police presence already secured the parade route, so there was an immediate onslaught of blaring sirens and flashing lights.
“Children saw this, and they were in shock and they started crying because they saw people on the ground with the blood coming out. It was horrible,” said Albetta.
Wilton Manors is a tight-knit community near Fort Lauderdale with a vibrant downtown filled with shops, where people line up for Rosie’s famous hamburgers or to gossip and drink at Georgie’s Alibi Monkey Bar.
June is Pride Month, commemorating a June 1969 uprising that followed a police raid targeting gay patrons at the Stonewall Inn in New York. It was a catalyst for the gay rights movement.