Fatal accident happens due to absence of guard rails

A day after a drag-racing car careened into a crowd and killed seven people in this small town, it was asked why the dragster was allowed to speed down a public highway with no guard rails.

"It ain't really safe to do anything with drag cars on a city street," said 19-year-old Garett Moore, who said he was about 15 feet (4.5 meters) away from the wreck, but was uninjured. "They shouldn't have done it."

The crash happened Saturday during an "exhibition burnout" - when a drag racer spins his tires to make them heat up and smoke - at the Cars for Kids charity event in Selmer, located about 80 miles (129 kilometers) east of Memphis.

Amateur video of the crash, broadcast on WMC-TV in Memphis, showed the car's engine revving loudly before the vehicle sped down a highway. After a few hundred feet (meters), the smoking car skidded off the road in front of a drive-in restaurant.

Selmer Police Chief Neal Burks said "bodies were flying into the air when it happened."

There was a guard rail along at least part of the highway, but not along the stretch where the crash occurred.

Nick Staples, who was at the car show and charity event with his wife and three children from Columbus, Mississippi, said he was standing 20 feet (6 meters) from where the car plowed into the audience.

"There should have been guard rails," Staples said. "But even if there had been, it wouldn't have mattered."

Tennessee Highway Patrol spokesman Mike Browning said the seven who died included a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old. At least eight people were taken to hospitals and several others had minor injuries, he said.

The identities of the victims and the driver were not released immediately, and authorities would not say Sunday whether charges were pending against the driver. The Highway Patrol also declined to make any statement about road conditions or safety procedures.

Kay White, a manager at the Elm's Restaurant across the street from the accident, said she was taking a cigarette break when she heard a crash, screams and cries for help.

"The best way I could describe the crowd's reaction was like the people from 9/11. They were just walking around with a blank, distant stare," White said. "You could tell they were ... wondering what had happened."

Mourners placed small votive candles, flowers, a teddy bear and a ceramic angel at the crash site Sunday.

Matthew Brammer, administrator of AMS Pro Modified Series, which sanctions drag races, said late Saturday that the car involved has been driven in competition by drag racer Troy Critchley, of Wylie, Texas, but he did not know if Critchley was driving when the car struck the crowd.

The AMS Pro Modified Series later issued a news release saying the driver was a veteran of more than 20 years in drag racing and had to be taken to an emergency room. The release said the driver was performing a burnout when road conditions caused the car to go out of control.

A spokesman for AMS Pro Modified Series, Bill Reid, did not return phone calls Sunday.

Moore, the 19-year-old witness, said before the crash there had been a parade of cars on the two-lane state highway - everything from antique cars to modern dragsters. But he thought the show was over.

"I was about to head across the street, and I saw him barreling toward us."

Other dragsters in the parade had been spinning their tires and then accelerating quickly, but everyone else put on the breaks before going past the guard rails, Moore said.

"This is definitely not the kind of road you should be drag racing on," Moore said, noting that most public roads have an arc, or hump, that lets rain run off more quickly. "This isn't a flat open surface like you have at a race track."

Authorities closed the festival after the crash. About 40,000 to 60,000 people were expected to attend the weekend event.

Cars for Kids holds several events throughout the nation and raises close to $200,000 (150,220 EUR) annually for charities that help children in need, according to its Web site.

A statement posted on the Web site Sunday offered an apology to the victims and their families: "The loss is deep within our hearts and we will carry the scars of each loss forever."

The charity was formed in 1990, two years after founder Larry Price's son, Chad, suffered a severe head injury in a bicycle accident. Price promised that if his son was saved from lifelong injuries, he would spend the rest of his life raising funds for disabled children, according to the Web site.

Price did not immediately return calls seeking comment Sunday.