What to Know
- The 71-year-old driver in the crash identified himself to police at the scene. Authorities said he was impaired while driving.
- Five people were hospitalized, with two victims sustaining critical injuries.
- The tunnel is known to shelter houseless individuals, though authorities did not confirm if those who were hurt or killed in the crash were homeless.
Witnesses of the Monday morning crash that killed three people on a sidewalk near San Diego City College said there were dozens of people sheltering inside the tunnel at the time of the tragedy because of the cold weather.
“There were a lot of people,” witness Michael Luke told NBC 7.
“Probably about 30, 40…30 people,” echoed Ronnie Williams, another witness.
Shortly after 9 a.m., authorities received numerous phone calls about a driver who veered onto a sidewalk under a tunnel on the 1400 block of B Street near San Diego City College.
The tunnel is known to be a makeshift shelter for houseless individuals and because of the stormy weather overnight, several people had lined tents under the north side of the tunnel, where the vehicle struck.
"We know that most if not all those who were sheltering under that bridge this morning were homeless and they were there because they felt as though they had nowhere that they could go," said San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria. "This crash this morning did not have to be so devastating. Let me state it very clearly: a street is not a home.”
Nine people were hit by a Volvo station wagon and three died at the scene. Five surviving victims were hospitalized; at least two patients were in critical condition.
"What we know is the timing of this is pretty terrible," Gloria continued. "You would normally have folks sleeping under that [bridge] on any given night. Because of the rain, both last night and this morning, we have to assume that more people were congregating there than normal."
Williams described the moment of the crash -- a moment he said was likely a matter of seconds but felt like it was in slow motion.
"It was silent for a second and then it just became very, very loud. Everybody screaming in pain and in agony," Williams said. "You could tell they were hurt, like for real, for real."
He said the driver took out three tents lined along the sidewalk at first, then a few more.
“I heard a loud bang or like a boom,” he told NBC 7. “I turned around and I saw yellow headlights and next thing you know, I was almost getting sucked under the car. And then I managed to pull my leg out from under the car right here.”
Williams said he believed he was struck as the car was coming to a halt and was able to walk away. He suffered some scratches and bruises to his legs but did not need to be hospitalized.
Williams described the crash as “like something you see in a movie scene.”
“It was kind of like a nightmare a little bit, you know,” he said. “And it could’ve been way worse than what it is for me. Obviously, I made it through, but some people didn’t.”
Police do not yet have the names or ages of the fatal victims in the crash, according to San Diego Police Department Police Chief David Nisleit.
“To those families [of those who] have passed, my deepest condolences,” the police chief said.
A mental health clinician was deployed to the scene to speak with those impacted and offer shelter, which at least three had taken them up on, Nisleit said. The city was also working to reunite individuals with their possessions.
Hanan Scrapper with the homeless outreach group PATH, People Assisting the Homeless, said they would help the individuals who were displaced by the crash find access to shelter.
"The street is not a home and this tragedy further highlights the dangers of living on the streets. PATH offers its condolences for the lives lost today," Scrapper said in a statement. "This location has long been known as a gathering place for the unsheltered population and PATH will assist those displaced by the today's crash get access to shelter and services."
Gloria called it inhumane to allow San Diegans to sleep on the streets and vowed to "deal with it head-on," adding that anyone experiencing homelessness in San Diego can call 211 for help.
“We can and we will provide shelter to those who need it,” he said. “I want to speak to those without homes in our city – accept the help we are offering. We have beds, we have services, we can connect you with family – and offer you a safe place to stay.”
The city recently ended a program meant to provide shelter during the pandemic to thousands of homeless residents at the San Diego Convention Center. He announced last week that the homeless individuals at the site would be relocated to reconfigured shelters and would receive the same services.
San Diego City Council member Stephen Whitburn, who represents the district where the crash occurred, used the moment to call for more permanent solutions to the city's homeless crisis.
"This is stark evidence of the need to find permanent solutions to the homelessness crisis so that no San Diegans are forced to seek shelter in unsafe places such as under bridges and in tunnels that vehicles pass through. We will continue to monitor this situation to ensure that the victims and their families find the support they need," Whitburn said in a statement.
San Diego police said the driver was identified as a 71-year-old man who was suspected of driving while impaired at the time of the crash.
Luke said the driver looked really distraught and walked away from the vehicle after the crash but stayed at the scene. Nisleit said the driver cooperated with authorities and self-identified himself as the driver right away.
He was identified as 71-year-old Craig Voss of San Diego and was being held on three counts of vehicular manslaughter, five counts of causing great bodily injury while committing a felony, and one count of felony DUI.