PALM COAST — Rescue workers who were among the first to respond to the Publix crash scene Saturday said they couldn’t visualize the mayhem they were walking into based on the calls that had come over their radios.
“It was one of the more shocking calls I’ve been to, even as a 21-year veteran,” Flagler County sheriff’s Cpl. David Williams said Wednesday. “It was like a bomb went off. There was debris and people lying around and blood all over the place. We pulled up and realized the gravity of the situation.”
Ten Palm Coast residents were injured when a 2004 Toyota Camry driven by 76-year-old Thelma Wagenhoffer “accelerated rapidly as it crossed the parking lot” and crashed through the exit doors at the Publix, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. Wagenhoffer was charged with careless driving Tuesday and investigators checked “yes” to “driver re-exam” on the crash report.
After crashing through the front of the store, the car continued for “at least” 40 or 50 feet into the store, according to the FHP.
“Our deputies went in to administer first aid and came back out with blood all over their uniforms,” Williams said.
He said he and five other deputies arrived at the grocery store within a minute of the first 9-1-1 call made at 1:24 p.m. because they had been at a nearby bank answering an alarm call that turned out to be false. Less than 30 minutes after arriving, all of the most seriously injured victims were on their way to the hospital.
“One (a Publix customer) came out and said, ‘Corporal, can you hold the baby?’ It didn’t even look like the baby had been involved, but I could see the mother was covered with glass and blood,” Williams said. “Absolutely the baby was protected by the grace of God.”
Emergency workers from the city of Palm Coast, Flagler Sheriff’s Office, Florida Highway Patrol, Flagler County Fire and Rescue, and Flagler County Emergency Management, along with dispatchers, worked seamlessly to get the 10 victims to area hospitals for treatment, said John Subers, administrative director and spokesman for Florida Hospital Flagler.
Palm Coast Fire Chief Mike Beadle said the crews “did a jam up job.”
“Deputies gave reports to ambulance (emergency medical technicians) and firefighters as they came on scene,” Beadle said. “And the dispatchers behind the scenes did a great job. They were right there and did exactly what we needed.”
It’s not unusual to receive a call about a car crashing into a building in Palm Coast, Williams said, but usually no one is injured and there is little damage.
“It’s not an unusual call that there is an elderly person who crashes into a building,” he said. “Usually, it’s no big deal.”
Fire Rescue Chief Don Petito, who also was at the scene Saturday, was “stunned” by the car’s depth of travel into the store and the amount of damage that was done.
“Usually when a car hits a building it barely goes in, if at all,” he said.
Petito and Beadle both said Saturday’s accident is why rescuers undergo extensive training.
“It was orchestrated chaos, but it went just fine,” Beadle said. “It was no more than 20 or 25 minutes from the time it all started and we had everybody extricated from the building and on the way to the hospital.”
Yara Gocking, emergency room nurse manager at Florida Hospital Flagler, said it’s unusual for so many patients to come in all at one time.
“We got eight patients by ambulance and one walk-in,” she said, noting the emergency room has 30 beds. “We had 21 patients already in the ER, so we had to make some quick decisions.”
Everything went smoothly, Gocking said, because communication was “really good” and the effort was well organized.
“We were able to take care of everyone who came in,” she said. “We’re not a trauma center but we are equipped for a true emergency like Saturday.”
Lupo Mario Hernandez, 83, who was pinned beneath the car when it came to rest in the store, was in critical condition Wednesday at Halifax Health Medical Center in Daytona Beach. His wife, Maria Hernandez, 81, was in good condition at Florida Hospital Flagler in Palm Coast. Gertrude Marley was in fair condition at Florida Hospital Flagler.
Maria and Lupo Hernandez were doing better, Maria Gomez, a cousin who was visiting the couple at Florida Hospital Flagler, said Wednesday.
Gomez said Maria Hernandez suffered a broken left leg and other injuries.
“She is more or less stable,” Gomez said.
Maria Hernandez has told family members that she found herself suddenly flung into the air at the Publix, Gomez said.
“She said she just felt herself flying through the air and she fell on the floor on the glass,” Gomez said.
Lupo Hernandez was trapped under the vehicle. Publix meat manager Dan Schill is credited with organizing a group to lift the car off him.
“He lost his consciousness immediately and did not know what happened,” Gomez said. “They just know they flew through the air.”
Lupo Hernandez also appears to be improving, she said.
“Definitely, God placed his hand and they are alive,” Gomez said. “Thank God.”
— Staff Writer Frank Fernandez contributed to this report.