Horses dragged driver as he tried to stop rampage

Published 10:00 am Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The buggy driver whose horses trampled spectators at this town’s Fourth of July parade had tried desperately to stop the rampage, clinging to the reins as the animals dragged him down the street, his family said Monday.

Mardell Steines was in the buggy with his wife, Janet, his daughter-in-law, his 7-year-old grandson and his 5-year-old granddaughter Sunday when the horses bolted toward the end of the parade, injuring 24 people and killing Janet Steines.

Police said the horses were spooked after they rubbed heads and the bridle fell off one of them. The animals went on a rampage over six blocks, plowing through spectators and children stooping to snatch up candy that had been tossed along the parade route.

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“If he ever envisioned a situation would happen that would cause harm to others, it would have destroyed him,” said Ken Walsh, whose daughter was in the buggy. “He was trying his damnedest to get those horses under control.”

The buggy struck a combine in the parade and a road sign, Walsh said. Janet Steines was thrown out and struck a concrete driveway. She died at the University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City.

The hitch came undone and the carriage separated from the horses, running over Steines as he held onto the reins, said Walsh, 61, whose daughter, Jenny Steines, is married to Steines’ son.

Steines’ shirt was shredded as the horses dragged him down the street, Walsh said.

Meanwhile, Jenny Steines clutched her children as the carriage rolled over. The roof protected them and they emerged with only bumps and bruises, Walsh said. He wasn’t sure when Mardell Steines let go of the reins, but said he refused medical treatment.

The horses finally rammed into the Maquoketa State Bank float at an intersection. The horses went down, and people leaped on them to hold them down, witnesses said.

Melissa Schmidt, 40, of rural Bellevue, said she was watching the parade with her 6-year-old son Adam and 4-year-old son Aden when she heard the horses running and their chains rattling. She jumped up and, next thing she knew, Aden was lying on his back with his hands in the air. She turned and saw Adam covered in blood.

Schmidt said she screamed, then dropped to her knees and cradled one son in each arm until paramedics arrived.

“I don’t think I’ve ever prayed so hard in my life,” she said.

Adam remained hospitalized Monday with a compound fracture of his right leg, bruises on his kidney, liver and right lung, and extensive road rash. He had a carriage tire mark on his right arm. Aden was treated for a concussion at a hospital Sunday and released.

Schmidt said she planned to attend the Friday funeral for Janet Steines, who she knew from church.

Along with Steines and Schmidt’s two children, 22 others were injured, police said. At 15 were children, according to information provided by police, who said two victims still hadn’t been identified.

Most victims had been released by Monday afternoon, but at least three remained hospitalized. More information on their conditions wasn’t available.

John Sawicki of Mount Prospect, Ill., watched the horses from his hotel’s balcony and said he tried to scream at people to move, but no sound came out because he was so shocked.

“They were flying right down the sidewalk,” said the 42-year-old, was in town to visit his mother. “I felt so helpless.”

Jim Evilsizer, a former paramedic who ran a food cart on the parade route, said he helped put a 10-or-12-year-old boy who apparently took a hoof to the head on a backboard and carry him to a triage area on the Mississippi’s shore.

“It looked like a war zone,” the 61-year-old said. “Backboards everywhere, kids strapped to them.”

Police are continuing to investigate the incident. Bellevue Mayor Virgil Murray said he did not know whether any charges would be filed.

The parade is normally the highlight of the year in Bellevue, which hugs the picturesque bluffs on the edge of the Mississippi River on the far northeastern Iowa-Illinois border. The town of 2,300 swells well beyond that number as thousands of people from miles around line the streets.

“It’s bigger than Christmas,” Murray said.

Horses have been in the parade for decades, and the Steines’ carriage has been a fixture of the procession among tractors, fire trucks and floats.

“We’ve had a lot of confidence in the people who come into our parade,” Murray said. “It’s just a freak accident that’s not explainable.”