The crash occurred about 12:15 p.m. outside the Parthenon restaurant, on a street lined with shops and eateries that typically teem with pedestrians and motorists.
Police said it appeared the SUV’s driver lost control while heading north on Connecticut Avenue. Most of the victims, police said, were at having lunch at the Greek restaurant’s outdoor patio, under its signature blue-and-white awning that juts out over the sidewalk, enjoying a sunny day before a potent winter storm was threatening snow on Saturday.
The gray Subaru SUV suddenly appeared to accelerate onto the patio, one witness said, where about 16 diners were sitting.
“It was going super-fast, like police-car fast,” said Becky Pulles, who was seated with a friend at an outdoor table at a Starbucks about 75 feet from the Parthenon.
Michael Harrison, a manager at the restaurant, said he was at a window inside the lounge area as the SUV barreled toward the patio. The driver “looked like he was confused as to why he couldn’t stop,” Harrison said.
“I saw the car hop the curb and start plowing everything in its way,” Harrison said.
The crash toppled tables, sent rubble flying and scrambled people to lift the SUV off people who were on the ground. Harrison rushed out to help heave the front of the SUV off a victim asking, “Where’s my daughter? Where’s my daughter?”
Duncan Bedlion, a D.C. police commander who runs the 2nd District station, described the driver as an older man who was alone in the vehicle. He was cooperating with investigators after the crash.
No charges had been filed as of Friday, and names of the victims were not immediately made public. Police said they trying to determine what lead up to the crash.
“It was truly an accident, from what we can tell right now,” Bedlion told reporters at the crash site. “There is no indication this was intentional in any form or fashion.”
John A. Donnelly, Sr., chief of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services department, described the events as “a tragedy.” Officials said all the victims appeared to be adults.
Eight people have now been killed in traffic crashes so far this year, one more than at this time last year, according to police records. City data shows about 500 people have been injured so far this year.
Last year the District recorded 40 traffic fatalities, the most since 2007, fueled by what authorities say is a proliferation of unsafe driving during the coronavirus pandemic that reflects an alarming rise in traffic deaths nationwide.
The Parthenon — a few blocks south of the Chevy Chase Circle at the Maryland line — has had an outdoor sidewalk café permit since 2012, according to the District Department of Transportation. Officials with that agency were at the scene Friday to assist in the investigation, including a team from the Vision Zero office, which oversees the city’s strategies to prevent traffic deaths and injuries.
From the northbound lanes, the driver of the SUV would have crossed two lanes of oncoming traffic on the busy street that serves as a gateway into the District. Kristi Teemsrushed from a nail salon when she heard sirens from the many emergency vehicles converging on the block and said it appears the driver narrowly missed a vehicle parked in front of the Greek restaurant.
The SUV crossed a sidewalk, careened through the patios of the Parthenon and its adjoining Chevy Chase Lounge, and plowed into the entrance of a dry cleaning shop. Broken potted plants and chairs littered the sideway.
Pulles and Christian Borjas, who were at the Starbucks, said they could hear the SUV’s engine gunning. “It suddenly accelerated,” Pulles said. “It looked like someone hit the accelerator instantly.”
The SUV jumped over a curb, went in between columns of the Parthenon Restaurant’s outdoor awning, and plowed into people.
“It was horrific,” Pulles said.
Borjas, a nurse from California who is temporarily working in the area, rushed over and helped lifted the SUV off an injured woman. He then helped open the door for the driver.
“He walked out. He was scared. You could tell it wasn’t intentional,” Borjas said.
The Parthenon’s owner, Pete Gouskos, was at the dentist when his son, Harrison, called him on FaceTime and showed him what was happening.
“Dad, we had a major accident here,” his son told him.
Gouskos pulled up in time to see the driver, who he said has patronized the restaurant’s adjacent lounge for the past 15 years to watch sports on television.
“He was in shock,” Gouskos said, saying the man seemed rattled by what happened. “I know him very well. He’s a very nice guy. It definitely was an accident.”
Gouskos said one of his waiters was outside and saw the SUV charging at the restaurant and jumped out of the way, mildly injuring his leg. Had his back been turned, Gouskos said, and he might have been killed.
Harrison said it was a sad scene.
“Bodies were everywhere — bleeding, crying, screaming,“ Harrison said. “It looked like a war zone.”
But he also said he saw “a strong community come to help the injured and try to bring a calmness to the scene.”
Luz Lazo and Emily Davies contributed to this report.