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Parade spectators share tales of close calls
Anthony Rodriguez
Anthony Rodriguez - photo by Image submitted

RINCON -- Christen Nave's four-year-old daughter isn't interested in attending any more parades.

Who can blame her? The little girl was one of dozens of children left terrified by a close brush with danger on Fort Howard Road during Saturday's Freedom Rings Parade.

The event was disrupted 20 minutes after its 10 a.m. start by a driver who pulled onto Fort Howard Road from Lockner Driver at Lost Plantation and headed one mile in the opposite direction of the parade route at a high rate of speed. The driver zig-zagged through parade entries, barely missing some of them and young spectators who gathered along the edge of the road to collect candy.

Two Rincon Police Department vehicles at the front of the parade quickly pursued the fleeing driver, which steered a Jeep Grand Cherokee through Rincon Fire Department trucks that tried to block its path.

The pursuit ended when Officer Ian Gallagher, heading in the same direction as the parade, hit the gray Grand Cherokee head-on with his vehicle near Rincon Elementary School at Market Street. Gallagher was taken to a hospital for treatment. His dog Razor wasn't injured.

Many spectators identified the driver as a woman. According to the driver's license, the driver was 38-year-old Anthony Rodriguez.

"We had set up to watch the parade at Weisenbaker Road," Nave said. "We saw a police officer who was blocking the road -- I'm not sure who it was -- wave for her to stop. When he waved his finger for her to stop, she just kind of gave him a little smirk and a smile".

Nave said her daughter was headed to the edge of the road to collect candy tossed from a parade unit when Rodriguez revved the Jeep's engine.

"When she did that, she swerved to get around the police officer and almost hit my little girl," Nave said. ",,, I just started screaming because all I could see was kids running into the street. I started screaming hoping everybody would back up.

"I don't know how she didn't hit anybody."

Dasher Landing resident Josh Phillips witnessed the end of the pursuit.

"There were two fire trucks sitting here," he said while speaking near Westminster Court. "The Jeep cut across in front of them to come across on the right side of the road. When it got on the right side of the road, she went off the road and that's when the patrol car hit her head on."

Phillips estimated that the driver, likely to face numerous aggravated assault charges, was traveling at least 45 mph.

"She just about clipped every one of the families on the side of the road here," he said. "If it wasn't for (Gallagher's) quick response, there is no telling how many people would have been killed. Kids were all up and down the side of the road (beyond the crash)."

Curtis Swagart of Mallard Point added that two pursuing police vehicles arrived at the scene of the crash almost as soon as it happened. Chief Jonathan Murrell of the Rincon Police Department was in one of them.

Murrell said the driver ignored Lost Plantation barricades and the pleas of Public Works Supervisor Tim Bowles to stop before the chase began.

"She said she was late for work and wasn't going to wait for a parade," Murrell said. "Well, she's not going to make it to work now."

Murrell expressed regret that the parade, an Effingham Heroes Inc.-sponsored event designed to honor Effingham County's first responders, was marred by the fearful incident. 

"I just told my guys that we are going to have to have a long, serious conversation with city council about not doing this parade again," he said. "Last year, we had an elderly lady -- granted, she didn't know what she was doing -- but she went the wrong way down the route and we had to get her stopped. Now this!

"I'm not going to support this. Of course, I can be overridden."

The Georgia State Patrol is investigating the crash.