State authorities said Monday that the driver of a tanker truck did not intend to hit anyone when he drove onto the Interstate 35W Bridge in Minneapolis and sent protesters running for their lives.
Government officials say trucker Bogdan Vechirko may not have realized that I-35W and other metro interstates had been closed as part of the ongoing unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd last week in police detention.
State Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said Vechirko, driving an empty fuel tanker truck from Interstate 94 onto northbound 35W, was speeding but did not go around any barricades and was not acting intentionally while narrowly missing everyone in the crowd.
As Harrington was making his comments at a midday news conference, Vechirko, 35, of Otsego, remained jailed on suspicion of assault but had not been charged.
The driver “panicked, and he just kept barreling forward,” Harrington said. When Vechirko saw a woman on her bike fall in front of him, he slammed on his brakes and came to a sliding stop, the commissioner said.
“We don’t have any information that makes this seem like this was an intentional act,” he said. “It wasn’t that he went around the barricades to get to the protest.”
Harrington’s conclusion about Vechirko’s motives runs counter to that of several people on the bridge, including Drew Valley, who said, “He wasn’t stopping. He was beeping loudly and driving into a crowd of people.
“That’s the same kind of malice that brought us here. It’s a callous disregard for someone’s humanity.”
Another marcher, who was nearly hit, said the driver’s actions makes him suspect he meant to keep going but may not have been trying to hit anyone.
Charlie Garney said he spotted the truck about 150 yards from where he was standing. Garney said the driver began maneuvering around vehicles ahead of him that were trying to turn around after being unable to cross the bridge.
The truck driver “began accelerating from a low speed to a high speed while blaring his horn,” Garney said. “It was clear … he knew we were there and accelerating toward us.”
Garney said the truck came within 15 to 20 feet of him on the bridge while going “deeper into the crowd. … I was in fear of my life with no place to go.”
Garney acknowledged being uncertain about Vechirko’s motives.
“If he did have the intent to kill people, he had a change of heart,” Garney said.
Gov. Tim Walz said he watched the incident live on highway cameras, and “I was breathless ... because I thought I was going to witness dozens or hundreds killed.”
He also praised the protesters who protected the driver, who was pulled out of the cab when he stopped halfway across the Mississippi River span and attacked.
“He got beat up pretty bad,” said Justin Goeman, who came to the driver’s defense until police reached him. “If we hurt this man, it defeats our purpose. ... I cannot imagine what the narrative would be if we hurt that man.”
The barriers were meant to be up in time to enforce an 8 p.m. curfew, but the Minnesota Department of Transportation was directed to have its barricades and big trucks in place earlier as 5,000 to 6,000 protesters marched from to the bridge, Harrington said.
At least in Minnesota, Vechirko’s driving record is nearly spotless. He was convicted of a seat belt violation in 2009 and has had dismissed one citation for speeding and two for failure to produce proof of insurance.
The driver’s employer, Ohio-based Kenan Advantage Group, declined to answer questions about the incident after releasing a statement that said in part: “Our hearts go out to all those who are grieving the events of this past week. … We will be cooperating fully with the investigating authorities in the days ahead.”
One motorist said she encountered no barricades blocking traffic onto the bridge moments before the truck sliced through the crowd. Meaghan Pezon was driving north on 35W and saw many cars going the wrong way toward her.
“I was confused and knew I should probably turn around, but there was no good place for me to do it,” she said. “My car was surrounded by protesters. When a protester first approached me, there were no police, no barricades, no indication that 35 was closed.”
As police swarmed in and protesters dispersed, she exited on an entrance ramp.
“I really had no idea what was happening on the bridge,” she said. “I just thought I was going home.”
Staff writers Mara Klecker and Matt McKinney contributed to this report.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482