Officials said Monday that a 35-year-old Minnesota semi-truck driver did not go around barricades on I-35 and there’s no evidence that he was deliberately targeting protesters when his tanker truck sped onto a crowded bridge Sunday.
“From the traffic cams we know the driver of the tanker truck was on the freeway already,” Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington told reporters.
Harrington said the truck entered the interstate before workers had blocked off access to the highway.
“He was on I-94 already and he turned onto 35 before we got barricades or trucks there to block of his access to 35,” Harrington said.
Bogdan Vechirko of Ostego, Minnesota was taken into custody after a horrifying scene late Sunday afternoon when videos showed his semi – its horn blaring – speeding toward hundreds of peaceful protesters packing the I-35 bridge across the Mississippi river.
Protesters scattered, fearing for their lives. On social media, people accused Vechirko of deliberately trying to kill protesters.
After reviewing traffic camera footage – and questioning Vechirko – authorities now say they think the driver came up on the protest by accident.
“We don’t have any information that makes this seem like this was an intentional act,” Harrington said. “It wasn’t that he went around the barricades to get to the protest.”
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Gov. Tim Walz says he was watching live traffic camera feeds from the state command center Sunday when he saw the semi speeding onto the bridge.
“I was breathless as I watched it because I thought I was going to witness dozens or hundreds killed in the immediate crash,” Walz said.
When the semi stopped and videos showed demonstrators jumping on the cab and pulling the driver out, Walz said he feared he might be beaten. The governor praised other protesters who moved in to protect him.
“Peaceful protesters in Minneapolis and St. Paul protected this person – even after what we saw appeared to be at the time an attempt to kill them,” Walz said.
He was thankful no one was killed by the truck – or in the aftermath.
“It was, frankly, possibly a miracle,” Commissioner Harrington said.
Social media attacks
In videos posted to Facebook after the incident, some protesters said they had seized the driver’s cellphone. They quoted text messages which they thought were evidence that Vechirko had planned to disrupt the protest.
Hinting at political motives, other posts pointed out Vechirko had contributed to President Trump’s campaign. Still others mistakenly pointed to a Facebook account showing photos of a different man with the same name wearing Ukrainian military gear.
But some people who know Vechirko quickly came to his defense.
“He’s a great guy. That’s it,” said Lonnie McQuirten, owner of 36 LYN Refuel Station – a BP gas station on Lyndale Avenue in South Minneapolis.
McQuirten says Vechirko has just made a badly needed fuel delivery to his black-owned station – one of only a few stations still open.
“He was delivering gas to a gas station. How can he be part of it – he’s part of feeding his family,” McQuirten told KARE 11.
He said Vechirko must not have known that state officials abruptly decided to close the interstates at 5 o’clock – instead 8 o’clock as had been announced earlier.
“Obviously he didn’t know there were people on the highway and I also didn’t know people were on the highway because I was on the highway at the exact same time,” McQuirten said. “He was not racist at all. He was doing his job, that’s it!”
State officials say they believe Vechirko was speeding when his semi suddenly saw the crowd packing the bridge. “He saw the crowd and initially, what it looks like, he panicked,” Commissioner Harrington said.
“The driver was doing 70 miles an hour, as we understand it, or in that range,” Harrington told reporters. That’s when he apparently started sounding his horn, slowing down, and finally slamming on his brakes.
“Even with hitting the brakes and even with dry pavement, we got lucky,” Harrington said.
“I’m still am in shock of what I thought we might have to be talking about,” added Gov. Walz.
KARE 11 confirmed that campaign records show that Vechirko made a $100 campaign donation last October to the Trump Make America Great Again Committee. Except for a 2012 misdemeanor disorderly conduct conviction and several traffic citations, he has no criminal record in Minnesota.
Harrington said the bridge incident is still under investigation. As of Monday afternoon, Vechirko had not been charged.