msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 8/16/2010 4:46:45 PM ET 2010-08-16T20:46:45

Zachary Freeman loved to fish, dirt bike and camp — but most of all, he loved to watch off-road truck racing in the vast Mojave Desert northeast of Los Angeles.

That love would cost the 24-year-old pipe welder and seven other off-road enthusiasts their lives when a truck competing in the annual California 200 careened off the sand track Saturday and into the crowd, instantly killing Freeman and his best friend.

On Sunday, his girlfriend and his stepfather mourned at a simple cross-and-stone memorial set in the thick sand and waited in the blistering heat for a locksmith to arrive to change the ignition lock in Freeman's truck so they could take it home. His keys had been lost in the chaos; the coroner found only a lighter in his pocket.

"I'm just in shock. It's not real yet, it hasn't soaked in," said Randall Peterson, his grieving stepfather.

Freeman's girlfriend, Nicky Carmikle, sobbed as she knelt down and placed her boyfriend's camouflage baseball hat in the center of the stone circle surrounding the wooden cross.

Carmikle recalled how she had stepped away from the race for a few minutes to use the bathroom and returned to find the truck upside down, bodies everywhere and people screaming in panic.

"His shoes are still over there. I can't even look," she said, gesturing to a bag full of abandoned clothing, shoes and blankets, some stained with blood. "It just isn't fair, it isn't right."

Those who witnessed the accident said the crowd pressed close to the track and could almost touch the trucks as they hurtled and bounced over the desert sand.

Shortly after the race began, one driver took a jump at high speed, hit his brakes on landing and rolled his truck sideways into spectators, sending bodies flying on a section of track that had no guardrails or anything else to keep the crowd back. Eight people were killed and 12 were injured.

"You could touch it if you wanted to. It's part of the excitement," Carmikle said. "There's always that risk factor, but you just don't expect that it will happen to you."

Keith Carty, a fellow driver who witnessed the accident, said the driver of the truck that crashed took the jump too fast. In an interview with the "TODAY" show Monday, Carty described the scene after the wreck as a war zone.

"There was definitely just carnage," he said. "Shoes, hats, keys, wallets, bodies just spread out all over the desert — never seen anything like that before."

Carty said both drivers and spectators need to show more common sense during the races.

He added, however, that he had no second thoughts about the apparent lack of safety measures taken during the race and that neither drivers nor spectators of these types of off-road races would want barriers or guardrails put up.

"That would be completely impossible," Carty said.

Carty's friend and fellow off-road racing fan, Brian Wolfin, was among the eight people killed.

Cheyenne Frantzich, 15, was watching the race with her sister, who was killed in the crash. "I just thought it would be fun to be close. And it was a big mistake," Frantzich told CBS' "Early Show" on Monday.

California Highway Patrol Officer Joaquin Zubieta said Brett M. Sloppy, 28, of San Marcos, was behind the wheel of the truck involved in the crash. Zubieta said alcohol was not a factor in the crash. The highway patrol estimated he was going about 50 mph at the time of the crash.

Carty said Sloppy appeared to be going much faster.

Zubieta said state vehicle codes don't apply because the race was a sanctioned event held with the approval of the federal Bureau of Land Management, which owns the land used for the race.

The BLM issued a statement saying safety was the responsibility of the race organizer, South El Monte-based Mojave Desert Racing. MDR's permit required racers to travel 15 mph or less when they were within 50 feet of fans, and allowed no more than 300 spectators for the event, the agency said.

Spokeswoman Jan Bedrosian said in a statement on 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.

Phone and e-mail messages left for MDR were not immediately returned.

Phone and e-mail messages left for MDR were not immediately returned. MDR is located in a house with a chain-link fence in a residential area of the eastern Los Angeles County city. The driveway was empty and no one appeared to be home when an Associated Press reporter went to the site Monday morning.

Tens of thousands of people were spread out along the 50-mile (80-kilometer) track, but the site of the crash, a stretch known as the "rockpile," is one of the most popular areas to gather because the trucks become airborne, witnesses said.

Six people died at the scene and two others died after being taken to a hospital, authorities said. Most of the 12 injured people were airlifted to hospitals.

Officials said Sloppy, the driver, wasn't hurt. It was not clear why he lost control of the truck, a white modified Ford Ranger with "Misery Motorsports" painted on the doors.

A Facebook page that appeared to belong to Sloppy and included a picture of his truck was updated Sunday with a note: "Soo incredibly lost and devistated my thoughts and prayers go out to all the familys and friends involved.. Thank you too all my friends for sticking with me even thru these tragic times I love you all."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Video: Race crash witness: Driver took jump too fast

  1. Closed captioning of: Race crash witness: Driver took jump too fast

    >> half hour with a tragic crash in the mojave desert .

    >> reporter: the investigation into what caused saturday's deadly accident continues today with officials planning to interview some of the injured recovering at air hospitals. this as we learn more about some of those killed in that crash, avid racing fans, almost all in their 20s. a makeshift memorial in the desert marks the spot where 24-year-old zachary freeman was tragically killed. he was one of thousands who gathered in a dry lake bed for an offroad truck race, and then in an understand stand, spectators became victims, an out of control truck slammed into the crowd, many standing just feet away, killing eight, scattering their bodies on the ground. freeman's girlfriend of two years said she would almost certainly be among the dead when he went to the bathroom. while she was gone, the man she hoped to marry was killed.

    >> our favorite thing to do was get out and go to the desert. that was all he wanted to do. and it ended up like this.

    >> reporter: the truck was one of more than 80 taking part in the annual race known as the california 200 on saturday evening. photographer dave conklin captured the moments leading up to the tragic accident.

    >> dust everywhere, lots of people starting to run to the scene. people yelling, people screaming.

    >> reporter: the driver wasn't injured, but is clearly in pain, posting on his facebook page, so incredibly lost and devastated. my thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends involved. sloppy has not been charged with a crime.

    >> reporter: organizers often let fans stand right on the sidelines with no barriers whatsoever.

    >> you cannot prevent spectators from getting right on the court unless you put barriers along the whole course and some of these courses are 200 miles long. the spectators have to take some responsibility for themselves.

    >> reporter: a fast moving thrill that quickly led to tragedy. now in terms of the investigation, the bureau of land management issues permits for these offroad races. the permit for this particular event stated that the organizer is responsible for safety, but also noted the vehicles should be moving no faster than 15 miles an hour when traveling within 50 feet of clouds, a regulation that clearly was not enforced.

    >> all right, thank you so much. keith cardi witnessed the accident when his long-time friend was among those who were killed. keith , your condolences to you.

    >> thank you.

    >> this was supposed to be a buddy's weekend, you've been friends with brian for 10 years. as a friend and a witness, how would you describe what you saw?

    >> there was devastate just carnage, shoes, hats, keys, wallets, bodies just spread out all over the desert. never seen anything like that before.

    >> you saw brian and you know him to be a man so full of life that you didn't believe he actually had died, is that right?

    >> yeah, no, i saw him there, but i didn't think that it was him. and so i left, and about 30 seconds after i left, a friend called and said, hey, brian 's down here, you got to come and identify the body, he didn't make it. and so i went back down and i looked real close and it was definitely him and i checked for a pulse, but you could tell he wasn't with us anymore. even before i checked for the pulse. so it was really obvious what had happened.

    >> and given that you've lost a friend and yet you love this sport, do you have any second thoughts about the safety questions that this accident has raised? do you believe now there should be guardrails given what's happened?

    >> that would be completely impossible and we wouldn't want that as a spectator or as anybody in the sport. the most important part in this whole deal is you have to have common sense . granted the spectators are a little bit close, but as i have said in past interviews, you know, it's nobody's fault and that's because the spectators have to use common sense , obviously, but so do the drivers, if there's a huge jump coming up and lines of people on either side, you have no business doing 80 to 100 miles an hour through there. so it's kind of a washout. you have to -- you can't just throw common sense out the window because you're racing. you have to -- you know, it's the drivers' responsibility to make sure that he's driving in a safe manner when there's spectators around. once he gets through the spectators, go ahead and put it to the floor.

    >> do you mean that the driver was not driving in a responsible manner.

    >> i took that jump at least 20 or 30 times that day just for the fun of it. and there's no way -- and that was with no people around. there's no way i would go 80, 90 miles an hour through that jump. i was pulling 40 to 60 miles an hour and that was just on the edge of control and that was with no people around, and now bring people around and put a truck right in front of you and, you know, this is what happens. granted, the people were obviously close, but the driver has a responsibility to drive responsibly around those people. it's nobody's fault, yet it's both parties', you know.

    >> i don't want to interrupt you, i just want to give you a chance to speak about why you're speaking out this morning, i know you want to race money for brian 's family, he's left behind two small children, 5-year-old seth and 1-year-old sarah, what would you like for them to remember about their father who was lost in this accident?

    >> well, he was a very good family man. him and his family is the reason that i'm even on the air right now. i'm not here to -- for any other reason. i want to make sure -- the first thing i thought about when i saw brian laying there is that now seth doesn't have a dad and so what's he going to do? what's his 1-year-old girl going to do? she doesn't have a dad either. we have started a memorial fund, brian wolfen.com. and if you have any donations, even if it's just a dollar, we would happily take it, it's going to go directly to brian 's wife.

    >> keith cardi, thank you so

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments