The annual Waukesha Christmas Parade was meant to be a jubilant celebration, bringing the community together after a hard year grappling with Covid and isolation.
But the festival quickly turned into a tragedy when a red SUV rammed into a crowd Sunday night, leaving five dead and over 40 injured.
Witnesses of the chaos said they watched in horror as the SUV pummeled down Main Street, hitting people and a float, and attendees rushed to help the injured.
Waukesha resident Thomas Kluka said he goes to the parade every year with his family, but this time he sensed something was "not right."
When he saw the SUV barreling toward him, he said he threw his daughter out of harm’s way.
“My daughter stood up, I threw her out of the way, and then I basically yelled ‘Get out of the way!’ And my wife got out of the way and by the time she did, the car came right past me, within at least 2 feet. I could’ve touched the car going by," he said on the "TODAY" show Monday morning.
“If I had to get hit, I had to get hit,” he said.
He said it seemed like the driver intended to hit the crowd.
"That was his intention. … He made it an effort to come towards us because he wanted to get around the float," Kluka said. "I don’t know if it was to hit as many people as he can. I don’t know what the senseless intention was, other than just, going the speed that he did."
Scott Greger, another Waukesha resident, said his family was looking forward to the annual holiday parade, especially after it was canceled last year because of the pandemic and a year of "gloominess and isolation."
“All of a sudden, this red SUV comes barreling down the parade route,” he told NBC News on Monday morning. “It hit a pedestrian that was watching on the side of the road then continued on hitting the back of a float and continued going on."
He said the vehicle didn't stop or slow down, speeding at "at least 45 to 50 mph."
He praised his community for quickly responding to the injured.
“I think people responded fairly calmly given the state of the chaos. People ran to the person that got hit across from us instantaneously to try to do what they can," he said. "Obviously everyone was in disbelief."
Greger said his 6-year-old son is doing "OK," but added that he doesn't think "he fully has processed what happened in front of him." His cousin's children, who are a few years older, are "very shaken up," Greger said.
"They don’t want to ever go to a parade again, at this point," he said.
"It’s definitely going to be a huge impact on our community, just the amount of kids that were there and watching, and kids got injured. My wife is a teacher in the school district here, so that’s going to definitely impact our students and everyone moving forward," he added.
Jaymz Touchstone said he was watching his daughter’s band playing when the vehicle “swerved around the big truck right behind the band and then accelerated through the band and down the street.”
“I tried to pursue the car. I couldn’t. I turned around and came back and started to render first aid to the people there,” Touchstone said. “The kid that I was rendering first aid to … his feet were crushed. They ran over both of his legs. He hit his legs, got trapped under the tire.”
Pastor Jason Hacker, 42, of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, was driving a truck with his four kids inside, pulling a float full of church members when they saw the SUV that plowed through the crowd speed by.
“We’re an extremely strong community. On paper, it’s like a big city of 70,000, but at heart we’re a small town. It is a very tight-knit, close community, and that’s going to be its greatest strength in getting through this,” Hacker said.
He said his kids, ages 6, 7, 11 and 12, have questions that he's struggling to answer. “The older ones, you know, would ask why somebody would do something like this, and we just can’t explain something like that," Hacker said.
Among the injured are members of the a group called the “Milwaukee Dancing Grannies,” whose members are grandmothers, as well as at least one Catholic priest, multiple parishioners and Waukesha Catholic school children, according to Sandra Peterson, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
Waukesha Police Chief Daniel Thompson confirmed at a news conference Sunday evening that a person of interest had been taken into custody.