Ithaca, N.Y. — One person is dead after a tractor-trailer barreled into Simeon’s on the Commons around 4 p.m. Friday.
The crash sent at least seven people to the hospital, closed traffic on the Commons and drew hundreds of emergency responders to the heart of Ithaca’s downtown area.
Shortly after the truck smashed into the corner of the restaurant, around two dozen people rushed to help those injured inside.
Even as smoke billowed from a building that looked structurally unstable, bystanders put themselves at risk to make sure others were safe, according to witness and police accounts.
Officials said seven people were taken to Cayuga Medical with injuries. Medical helicopters were called to the scene.
The identity of the victim killed in the crash is being withheld as police notify the family. She was a bartender at Simeon’s and the mother of a 14-month-old child, Channel 9 WSYR reported.
The driver of the tractor-trailer is in police custody. Police said the driver “failed to negotiate a turn at the intersection,” but have not released exactly how the accident occurred.
The driver is cooperating with police and uninjured.
Witnesses said a pregnant woman was injured in the crash, but police did not respond to this when questioned, citing confidential patient information.
Those who were at the scene said they couldn’t comprehend what they’d seen.
Some compared the chaos — bloodied people, flying debris, crumbling bricks — to something out of a movie.
One server at Viva, the Mexican eatery across the street, was taking an order outside when the accident happened.
“It just happened so fast,” Zoe Klatz said. “It was so insane I thought it was like I was watching a movie.”
“It was terrifying.”
Hundreds of people gathered at the Commons after the crash. Many said they had only heard about the accident and wanted to make sure people they knew had not been hurt.
Some hugged each other tightly. Others wept. Friends held hands.
One man ducked under police tape and — ignoring his friends’ pleas — sprinted toward Simeon’s.
He was escorted back to Seneca Street by officers. The man lashed out at those who were with him before walking away in an eastern direction. He was crying and shaking his head.
Another woman walked around the Commons carrying a baby, weeping and screaming into her cell phone.
One woman, who didn’t want to give her name, stood by the police tape with her head down. She said her husband was in Simeon’s on Friday but that she hadn’t heard from him.
In the wake of the horrible accident, witnesses said, emergency responders and police did not hesitate to rush into the building.
Griffin Carmichael was visiting Ithaca with his parents Friday afternoon when he heard a bang.
“I saw this vehicle crash right into the building,” Carmichael said. “Immediately, people started running out.”
As some crawled out of a basement and through windows, Carmichael, his step-father and other bystanders rushed to Simeon’s to see how they could help.
“People were coming out of the basement, people were crawling out of the windows. We immediately smashed the window so people could come out,” Carmichael said.
“Smoke was coming out, bricks were falling and people were coming out injured and crying.”
One Viva employee was putting chips into a bag when she saw the truck go “full speed” into Simeon’s.
“It looked like special effects,” the employee said.
“I saw some people with bloody faces, and I gave someone an ice pack with an injury on his head.”
The work of emergency responders and bystanders was “amazing,” said Officer Jamie Williamson of the Ithaca Police Department.
“It was a great community effort,” Williamson said. “That’s one of the beautiful things about Ithaca, folks coming together in times of grief.”
Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick shared that praise, saying the first responders were “rising to the occasion in moments when we feel so small.”
“There’s not a lot of solace to be found … but there is inspiration to be found in the first responders,” Myrick said.
“This is obviously a very tragic day in the city of Ithaca.”
Myrick said the front of the building is at risk of collapse so engineers and a private contractor are executing a controlled 20 percent demolition of the front. After that, the truck will be removed.
The mayor said the work may last through the morning and to avoid the area if commuting.
Officer Williamson said the building is in “horrible shape.” NYSEG has shut down power to buildings nearby.
When asked if some sort of barrier might have been able to prevent the tragedy, Myrick said it was a “good question.”
“It’s something we’ll have to think about,” Myrick said.
Dintu Sidiki was one of the many at the scene who worried about the building’s structural soundness. She said she worried the whole building was going to fall down.
“I was so scared, I thought the whole building was going to fall down because bricks just started flying across the street. I was so scared. I didn’t know what to do. I literally thought we were all going to die,” Sidiki said.
“I helped two other people. One lady had a piece of wood in her arm and her face was all bloody.”
Dee Bowen, who was traveling through town from Ohio, was sitting outside, waiting to order food with her husband when they saw the truck crash into Simeon’s.
‘The brick started all coming down around it,” Bowen said. “The noise was tremendous.”
Another witness on scene, Michael Howe, said he was walking down Aurora Street when he saw the truck barreling down the hill.
“I had to literally jump out of the way. Thank God I’m here today,” Howe said.
After escaping, Howe did what so many other Ithacans did: He tried to help others.
Howe said he ran around the truck and helped to smash in the windows with a brick that had fallen.
“Literally everybody started flocking to help,” he said.