A tight-knit community of snowbirds in Florida was in mourning Tuesday after three elderly women — two of them Canadians — were killed in what appeared to be a horrific freak accident.
Residents of the mobile home community of Bradenton were leaving a Sunday church service at the Sugar Creek Country Club when a 79-year-old woman driving an SUV backed into a group of seven people at high speed.
'We're coping well but that doesn't mean the pain is gone. The loss is still very very fresh.' - Gerrit Koedoot, pastor
Margaret Vanderlaan, 72, and Wilhemina Paul, 79, both from Ontario, and Johanna Dijkhoff, 80, who was visiting her Canadian sister from the Netherlands, were killed.
Four others, including a 67-year-old Ontario woman, were seriously injured in what bystanders recalled as traumatic chain of events.
Vanderlaan's husband was standing just steps away from her when she was run over.
"I can't believe it's over," he told a local paper. "She and I have four kids and they are all devastated...I called them yesterday and they're all screaming. We have 15 grandkids and they are all nuts about her."
Gerrit Koedoot, a pastor who delivered the service that took place mere minutes before the accident, said the community was still reeling.
"It's almost like you're losing somebody from your own family with something like this," he told The Canadian Press in a phone interview. "There are so many things that need to be digested emotionally by everybody."
'An awful scene'
Koedoot recalls an SUV backing out of a parking spot, pulling forward and then needing more room to clear another parked vehicle. At that point he said the SUV began backing up again "at great speed."
The vehicle ran straight through a group of pedestrians, over a curb, collided with some trees and finally came to a stop after splashing into a canal.
It was clear that the three women who died had been struck the hardest.
"They were just mowed down," said the 79-year-old. "It was just an awful scene. It was emotionally almost impossible to measure."
Vanderlaan and Paul, both good friends, had been spending the winter in Florida for years, as have most of the community's other residents.
Members of their families rushed to Bradenton after hearing of the accident, said Koedoot, adding that Vanderlaan's husband and children were believed to be headed back to Canada Tuesday for her funeral. Paul's family was expected to do the same later this week.
'It's just been unreal'
"They're really devastated by the loss of a dear wife," Koedoot said of the men who had lost their spouses.
"They both had been long marriages and good marriages. It's just been unreal."
The community is now trying to recover from Sunday's events, a task made harder by how close the residents are.
"All these people that were standing there are all friends and family. They all know each other," said Koedoot.
"We're coping well but that doesn't mean the pain is gone. The loss is still very very fresh."
Florida police have said the incident wasn't alcohol related, and no charges have been laid against the driver of the SUV, who has been identified as Doreen Landstra, of Palmetto, Fla.
Witnesses told the local paper Landstra apparently thought she had the car in drive — and not reverse — when she pressed the gas pedal. Neither she nor the passenger in her vehicle were injured.
The investigation is ongoing.