Race spectator who died called 'hero'

Updated: August 16, 2010, 5:08 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

LUCERNE VALLEY, Calif. -- One of the eight spectators who died Saturday during an off-road race northeast of Los Angeles had pushed children out of the way as the truck barreled toward them, according to a friend.

Derek Cox told KABC-TV in Los Angeles that Andrew Therrien, 22, sacrificed himself to save the children. He was killed in the accident.

"I owe my son's life, as well as many others," Cox said of the Riverside resident. "They were inches away from him and he saved their lives. He's a hero in my book."

I owe my son's life, as well as many others. They were inches away from him and he saved their lives.

-- Derek Cox on Andrew Therrien, one of eight victims in an off-road race crash northeast of Los Angeles

Shortly after the California 200 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. Twelve people were also injured.

The federal Bureau of Land Management, which owns the land used for the race, is conducting an official review of the accident.

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.

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.

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

On Sunday, Carmikle and Freeman's 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.

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."

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 and there were no plans to arrest Sloppy, who the CHP estimates was going 45 to 50 mph at the time of the crash.

Zubieta said state vehicle codes don't apply because the race was a sanctioned event held with the approval of the BLM.

The BLM has said 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.

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.

Robert Garcia, 30, a resident of the street, said there are usually vehicles with the MDR logo at the house but he does not know the family that lives there.

"They're quiet people. They stick to themselves," he said.

Tens of thousands of people were spread out along the 50-mile 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.

Some said they got within 4 feet of the unmarked track, watching trucks fly over a series of jumps. Several jagged rocks jut from the rutted dirt track at the bottom of the hill.

The driver "hit the rock and just lost control and tumbled," said Matt March, 24, of Wildomar, who was standing next to the jump. "Bodies went everywhere."

March said he and other fans lifted the truck, which came to rest with its oversized wheels pointing toward the sky, and found four people lying unconscious underneath.

[+] EnlargeCalifornia 200
AP Photo/Francis SpeckerWorkers push an off-road race truck upright after it went out of control Saturday night and ran into a crowd in the Southern California desert.

It took rescue vehicles and helicopters more than half an hour to reach the remote location, accessible only by a rutted dirt road. Spectators said off-duty police and firefighters in the crowd joined paramedics hired by the race organizer to help the injured and place blankets over the dead.

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.

Paramedics brought six people -- five adults and a child -- to Loma Linda University Medical Center, spokesman Herbert Atienza said Sunday. He had no information on their condition.

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."

Nearly 40 friends responded with messages of support by Sunday afternoon.

The race is part of a series held in the Mojave Desert's Soggy Dry Lake Bed, about an hour's drive from the nearest city, Lucerne Valley.

The course winds through empty desert dotted only with rocky outcroppings and desert shrubs. Several families were still camping Sunday on a dried-up lake bed below the crash site. Buggies and dirtbikes zoomed back and forth, kicking up dust that could be seen for miles.

There were no barriers at the site of the crash. Fans said these races rarely have any kind of safety guards.

"That's desert racing for you," said fan John Payne, of Anaheim. "You're at your own risk out here. You are in the middle of the desert. People were way too close and they should have known. You can't really hold anyone at fault. It's just a horrible, horrible accident."

Briery said he didn't know if the BLM would conduct an internal investigation, and he added it was too early to say if the agency would change its permit rules to ensure stricter enforcement of safety requirements.

The BLM is required by Congress to make public lands accessible to reasonable requests, and the area used Saturday is one of the few available to off-road enthusiasts, he said.

The CHP does not normally investigate crashes at organized events, but took the lead on this probe because of its scope.

Aside from Therrien and the 24-year-old Freeman, those killed were Brian Wolfin, 27, Anthony Sanchez, 23, and Aaron Farkas, 25, all of Escondido; Danica Frantzich, 20, of Las Vegas; and Dustin Malson, 24, of Ventura; and Michael James Dickinson, 34, of Spring Valley.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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