Just two days before Thanksgiving, students in Waukesha, Wisconsin, who would normally be basking in the warmth of the upcoming holidays are instead reliving the carnage they saw Sunday as a man mowed down dozens of people in an annual Christmas parade—something one witness described as “very similar” to a war zone.
“It was the most horrific experience of my life, actually,” one witness said of the gut-wrenching moment she saw a vehicle heading toward where her younger sister was marching in the parade.
“All of a sudden, out of nowhere, comes the SUV flying down,” Keli Kowalewski recalled to WISN 12 News.
Kowalewski’s sister, who was not physically harmed, was marching with the Catholic Memorial Poms dance team when a suspect identified by police as Darrell Brooks allegedly deliberately mowed down parade-goers, killing at least five and injuring 48.
Student performers on the dance team and in the Waukesha South High School marching band were front and center for the tragedy.
“The car was like this close to us and sped right past us to my left,” Isabella Maher, the captain of the dance team, recalled in comments to WISN 12.
In the chaotic initial moments of the attack, she said she and other team members struggled to understand what was happening.
“We saw some people lying on the ground and we thought maybe somebody got hurt up ahead and the car was going to them. But then everybody started freaking out,” she said.
Suddenly these teenagers were doing the unthinkable: “I started honestly checking the bodies on the street to make sure they weren’t anybody that I knew.”
Angela Cooper, a chaperone at the parade for Catholic Memorial High School students, told WISN 12 that even those students unscathed by the attack will be left scarred by what they saw.
“I can’t get the images out of my head and I know these students can’t either.”
In addition to the five people killed in the attack—52-year-old Tamara Durand; 79-year-old Virginia “Ginny” Sorenson; 71-year-old LeAnna Owen; 52-year-old Jane Kulich; and 81-year-old Wilhelm Hospel—more than a dozen children were injured, some of them critically.
An 11-year-old girl who took part in the parade as a member of the Waukesha Xtreme Dance group was left “fighting for her life” after she was struck directly by the SUV, according to a GoFundMe campaign started for her family.
As of Monday, Jessalynn Kohnke was said to be in the ICU with major internal injuries.
Her uncle Ryan Kohnke said he and his own kids watched the nightmare unfold as Brooks allegedly drove into the crowd. “He hesitated for a moment. Only a moment, then he just gunned it from here,” Kohnke told TMJ 4 News. A moment later, he said, he ran into the crowd to see his niece “laying in the middle of five corners, downtown Waukesha.”
“Unfortunately my children were with me and they seen it too,” he said, likening the scene to the aftermath of war he said he’d seen during his military service in Iraq.
“This was very similar and it was the first thing it reminded me of, just seeing all those bodies.”
Perhaps most heartbreaking of all, the massacre apparently took place just after young parade-goers got to glimpse Santa Claus.
Corrine Long, a resident who lives along the parade route, told TMJ 4 News she’d been watching from her porch as the typically merry parade turned violent.
“Santa had just passed our house and then we saw the red SUV barreling through…”