PELLA, Ia. — Three people have died and two people were injured after a pickup truck drove through the front entrance of a Wal-Mart store Thursday morning in Pella.
A 911 caller reported a truck had crashed into the Wal-Mart, 1650 Washington St., shortly before 10 a.m., according to the Iowa State Patrol.
Don French, a cashier at the Wal-Mart for almost five years, was shopping in the store at the time. He said two of the people killed were Wal-Mart employees. Police have not released the identities of the victims or said whether any of the victims worked at the store.
French said he heard a loud crash as the truck entered the store and came to rest near a refrigerator in the produce department. The truck took out one concrete bollards placed outside the Wal-Mart entrance to block cars.
"I'm personally shaken to hear about the loss of friends," he said. "We're a small town. We'll come together and get through this. That's what we do.
"We are a family here, these coworkers are still my people."
Sebastian Martin, another Wal-Mart employee, came to the parking lot after hearing about the crash to see if he was needed at his shift scheduled for Thursday night.
"It kinda freaked me out a bit," Martin said. "Not a lot goes on in a small town. When something like this happens, it's a big deal."
Alek Vink, a cashier at the Sports Page, said he was in the process of opening his store when the crash happened. The sporting goods store sits in a strip of businesses across the parking lot from the Wal-Mart.
"All of a sudden I heard a big crash," said Vink, 20. "I didn't really see anything ... but then came a bunch of police cars, firetrucks and an ambulance."
Vink said his grandmother's brother was working as a Wal-Mart greeter at the time of the accident, but was not injured. At first, Vink didn't know whether or not his relative was even at work. "It was a little scary," he said.
A coworker who walked across the lot to the Wal-Mart entrance told Vink afterward that he could smell gas in the air in front of the store.
The vehicle entered through the front doors on the grocery portion of the store and came to a rest after striking a merchandise display near the produce section.
The incident did not appear to be intentional, authorities said.
"We're heartbroken by what appears to be a tragic accident," Wal-Mart said in an official statement. “Our focus right now is on our associates, customers and gathering information. We will continue working closely with law enforcement and emergency responders."
Jamie McCarty, an employee at a Sally Beauty Supply store in the strip, was working near the front of the store when she heard a voice over loudspeakers telling people to evacuate the Wal-Mart store. She did not see the truck go into the building.
"You could just see people running out," she said. "... People were cluttering around the front of the building, and they were like screaming at them, 'Step back, move back.'"
Within minutes law enforcement officers arrived and ran into the building with guns drawn, McCarty said. Not sure what happened, she and her coworkers considered locking the doors to her store, she said.
"We watched them run in armed with guns," she said. "Originally I thought 'bomb threat' or terroristic threat or something."
Karen Vink of Pella came to the parking lot with her daughter when she heard about crash: "I saw workers hugging and embracing outside," she said. "We had just been shopping at the same time yesterday. We could have been in there."
Karen Vink said there are many people in Pella wondering if they will know any of the people killed or injured. Pella, a town of 10,352 residents, is located about 40 miles southeast of Des Moines.
"In the Christmas season," Vink said, "they were just going about their shopping, their work, and in an instant, it changed."
Iowa State Patrol spokesman Sgt. Nathan Ludwig said the pickup driver, an older man, was transported to the hospital with injuries. One other person was taken to the hospital with injuries.
No victims were children, Ludwig said. The driver was only person in the truck, he said.
Witnesses told Knoxville radio station KNIA/KRLS that truck was traveling at a high rate of speed as it went through the entrance. The store has been evacuated and is reportedly closed as emergency crews investigate the scene.
Judy Playle, of Leighton, who has worked at the store for nine years, said the incident is "a big shock. I know the employees are pretty scared."
"It's a family here," she said. "My thoughts and prayers are with everyone that works here, the man who drove through and his family."
Jonathon A. Smith, of Des Moines, posted a photo from inside the building of the crash to his Facebook page and called the incident "shocking."
“Kind of nuts," he said. "Things like that doesn’t happen down here."
The State Patrol continues to investigate and will release victim names after families are notified.