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Investigation into Santa Monica Market Accident Continues

TIM MOLLOY, The Associated Press

SANTA MONICA, Calif. (AP) -- When Russell Weller smashed his Buick into a retaining wall while arriving at a party 10 years ago, no one was hurt and the accident was incorporated into a humorous video of the event.

It was the same car in which the 86-year-old Weller barreled through a busy farmers market Wednesday, killing 10 people and injuring dozens more.

On Thursday, people who attended the birthday party 10 years ago released the videotape of the party, including a view of the car after the mishap.

"All of a sudden I heard this crash," videographer Chuck Morrell told KABC-TV. "We ran outside the house and his car was up on the side of this about three-foot wall, on the top of it. Nobody was hurt."

Ken Kaiden, a friend of Morrell's, said the car "took out the patio furniture and potted plants" before coming to a stop.

"At the time, they were making light of it," Kaiden said, adding that the end of the videotape even includes a credit that reads: "stunt driver: Russ and Barbara Weller."

Police say Weller told them he didn't realize Wednesday until too late that a street crammed with pedestrians and produce was closed for Santa Monica's popular twice-a-week farmers market. They said Weller believes he might have hit the gas instead of the brake as he tried to avoid the crowd.

Weller's attorney, Jim Bianco, called the crash a tragic accident and said Weller's thoughts were with the victims.

Authorities said it would be several days before they could conclude whether Weller could be held criminally liable.

Police Lt. Frank Fabrega told The Associated Press authorities had finished collecting evidence at the scene, but might need several more days to finish their investigation. They also visited Weller's house, where Police Chief James T. Butts said they found evidence he had recently struck his garage with his car at least twice.

The longtime Santa Monica resident's aging sedan, which witnesses said was traveling as fast as 70 mph, raced along the entire length of the open-air farmers market, knocking down stalls, scattering produce and hitting as many as 50 people.

The death toll rose to 10 Thursday when 7 1/2-month-old Brendon Esfahani died. He and a 3-year-old girl were the youngest victims; the oldest was 78. By Thursday night, 20 people were still hospitalized, five in critical condition.

The dead, reflecting Southern California's eclectic population, represented a cross-section of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.

They included the daughter-in-law of actor Dennis Weaver, the matriarch of a struggling immigrant family, husband-and-wife film producers who had recently relocated from New York, and a former welder from Shreveport, La.

Gloria Olivera Gonzalez, who came to the United States from Mexico 15 years ago, cleaned an office to make extra money before going for vegetables to serve her family.

"When we came in and we didn't have a place to stay, we didn't have dishes in the kitchen, she was the one who said, 'Go to the beach and pick up cans, and we'll make our way up,"' her sister-in-law Maria Martinez recalled.

On Thursday, some of those lucky enough to avoid injury returned to the market area just blocks from Santa Monica's shimmering beaches and famous pier. Fay Cohen, 42, sat at a coffee shop near the crash scene and wept, as she recalled the images of the day before.

"I saw three people killed before my eyes and I couldn't do anything for them," Cohen said. "I saw this man, he was bleeding and his eyes were opening and closing. I was trying to help him but I couldn't. I came back here because it wasn't finished for me. I don't think I ever will heal from this."

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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