They were there hours before the event started -- sitting on lawn chairs, or covered in blankets, waiting for what the mayor described as a Norman Rockwell-esque event. After its cancellation due to pandemics last year, the Waukesha Christmas parade, which has been a Milwaukee tradition for six decades was to be a special event this year.
A few blocks away, the parade participants were also in holiday spirit. The Milwaukee Dancing Grannies were a crowd favorite on Wisconsin's parade circuit. They wore white fur hats, waved white pompoms, and danced down Main Street to "Jingle Bell Rock." Bankers and realtors handed out candy, while a high school percussion section wore Santa hats, banging drums, and clanging cymbals.
They reveled as a red SUV drove down Main Street behind them at a speed far faster than the parade.
Police say that the SUV's driver had just left the scene for a domestic disturbance that involved knives. He drove past a barricade and a police squad car to get onto the parade route.
Multiple videos and witness accounts show that the driver drove alongside the marchers for a brief time in an empty parking lane. He narrowly missed people in the parade as well as those along the street. Some people on the route were confused and aloud asking what was going on. As police followed them, the alarm grew.
The SUV approached downtown where the sidewalks are wider and tree planters protrude into some areas of the road, and the crowd was denseer. The vehicle's path became more unpredictable and dangerous.
The parade was loud and many people were looking at the car. They didn't know the driver was coming and would hit them, sending people flying or crumpling. Others fled or ran to help.
After the chaos subsided, authorities reported that five people were killed and 48 others had been injured. The outcome of the parade depended on the position of each individual or group as the SUV rolled forward.
Four of the victims were among the Dancing Grannies, which included three dancers as well as a volunteer. Citizens Bank employee, the fifth victim, was also with her co-workers.
The injured include youth baseball players, a priest and members of a school marching group. There are also young girls involved in a dance troupe.
Margie Dougherty, her friends from Wisconsin Diamond Dancers and Margie Dougherty were a few places behind the SUV when it hit them. They were dancing for the Christmas song "Feliz Navidad" in a split second.
The parade's joyous, mixed-up chaos -- the beats of various bands, cheers from the crowd and recorded music for different dance groups -- suddenly stopped. Most of the Diamond Dancers were retired women who stood confused in the street.
Dougherty stated, "All of the sudden, there wasn't any musical accompaniment."
Spot No. The RE/MAX Service First parade contingent was at 49, just behind the Diamond Dancers, and a few spots ahead of the Dancing Grannies. Ken Walter and his wife, as well as their youngest son.
Walter, a Waukesha native of 58, participated in the Christmas event for at least 20 times. Walter was riding in a hot-air balloon basket on the rear of a RE/MAX van. Sometimes, fire would rise from the basket into the sky to ignite a huge balloon. This drew cheers from onlookers. Walter could look backwards and see his group as they reached downtown.
Walter says that this stretch of parade route is often crowded. Because the sidewalks are wider than the Main Street stretch, participants are closer to each other, and so vehicles and people are forced to move slower.
Walter stated, "I always tell all my crew to be careful, because everyone's very close." "There isn't much space between our vehicle, and the crowd."
Walter was able to see a red SUV speed past him from his vantage point. The SUV struck a member from the real estate group who was walking behind the van, where his family was riding. Walter stated, "You knew they were going after people you didn't expect it to."
The SUV continued to drive, narrowly missing both the van and the golf cart in front. Walter stated that the SUV drove into members of Waukesha South High School's Marching Band.
The vehicle can be seen hitting Santa hat-wearing musicians on video taken from above. Even though it appears to be slowing down, many people are still left behind.
Walter stated, "It was a parade so people were cheering and laughing." He said that they didn't know what was wrong until they heard the screaming.
Walter stated, "It felt like everything was going in slow motion and I couldn’t hear anything."
His 11-year old son, along with a few others from the real estate company, ran to his father. He was scared by the talk that someone had fired a gun in the car. He ran outside to look for Kay, his wife who was trying to help people injured when the car struck them. She was a former nurse in an intensive care unit and a nurse practitioner.
Walter stated, "There were these piles blankets with cops standing above them that you just knew was bodies." "(Y)ou can see the vehicle driving down the road as if they're on bumpy roads. You can see that they are driving over people. We watched as it went up to the other floating objects in front of us. We didn't know how far.
Nicole Schneiter, her grandchildren and children watched the parade from the sidewalk one block behind Walter and his group. They arrived two hours earlier to set up lawn chairs in their favorite spot at Burlap & Lace Marketplace halfway along the parade route.
Schneiter, a 6-year-old granddaughter, said to her 6-year old granddaughter, "You could do that someday."
She said, seconds later, "I just saw a car flying through, and just bodies." It was almost like someone had thrown dummies in the air.
"It took a moment to register, like, "Is that really what we just saw?" And then, you looked at the road and saw only people lying in it.
People started shouting, "Get in the shop!" Schneiter grabbed her son, 9 years old, and helped her older siblings get her two grandchildren into the store. They had been sitting in a wagon. They were led into a backroom by someone. One of her daughters held her 6-month-old.
"There was a woman in there who was panicking because she was missing her child. Schneiter stated that there was another man in there, covered in blood that wasn’t his. "It was like watching a movie."
Schneiter started receiving panicked messages from her 14 year-old daughter. She was also getting messages from a friend who lived on the other side of the route. Her daughter sent a text message asking "Mama, are your OK?" Schneiter couldn't reply because of poor reception. Later, her daughter shared with her that she had seen a boy running over next to her.
The SUV continued its deadly journey. The SUV reached Citizens Bank's group, where most of them walked beside a parade float wearing red ponchos and giving out candy to the spectators. Jane Kulich (52), was one of the victims. Local news reports claim Kulich, 52, worked at a branch of the bank. The bank stated in a statement that Kulich was "walking with our paradefloat" when she was struck by lightning and later died.
Next came the group of grandmas. Dead were Virginia Sorenson, 79; LeAnna Owen, 71; Tamara Durand, 52; and Wilhelm Hospel, 81. These three women were all Grannies members, and Hospel was reportedly a performer for the Grannies.
The Milwaukee Dancing Grannies posted earlier on Facebook that they were excited to kick off holiday parades.
"Waukesha, here we are!" The post said, "Waukesha here we come!" They posted again Monday in the aftermath saying that the group was "doing the things they love" by "putting smiles on faces and filling them with joy, happiness, and gratitude."
They found chaos when they emerged from the store, surrounded by strollers, chairs and candy. And bodies.
It is not clear how the tragedy ended.
The police have not provided any details. Police did say that an officer shot a gun at the SUV once. The driver, Darrell Brooks Jr. of Milwaukee, was also taken into custody after the SUV left the parade route close to Veterans Park. This grassy area is located at the end Main Street, where it turns sharply left.
Brooks was not injured. Police say Brooks has a history of dealing with the law. This includes a case in which he was accused, among others, of intentionally running down a woman using his car. Chief Dan Thompson, Police Officer, stated that Brooks acted alone. Authorities also claim there is no evidence that he knew anyone involved in the parade or that his actions were terrorist attacks.
Thompson stated that police were unable to respond to the Sunday evening domestic disturbance call before Brooks, who is believed have fled the location -- drove onto Brooks' parade route.
Dougherty (62-year-old Wisconsin Diamond Dancers member) said that she and other dancers worried about possible perils before the parade.
She said that she had never thought of the possibility that being in a parade could prove to be dangerous.