Driver describes fatal police funeral collision

Motorcycle officers who collided during a police funeral, killing one and injuring the other, were moving at high speed and were not using their sirens or lights, a motorist whose car was struck...

Motorcycle officers who collided during a police funeral, killing one and injuring the other, were moving at high speed and were not using their sirens or lights, a motorist whose car was struck said Friday.

John R. Mitchell, 67, of Torrance, said he was still shaken a day after an officer was thrown from a motorcycle into oncoming traffic and struck his 1998 Toyota sedan.

Mitchell wasn't hurt but "if it (the motorcycle) had gone through the windshield, I'd be a goner," he told The Associated Press by telephone.

Andrew Garton, 44, was helping escort the funeral procession Thursday for a police officer in nearby Manhattan Beach who had died of cancer. His motorcycle collided with that of Sgt. Rex Fowler of the El Segundo Police Department.

Mitchell said he was stopped in traffic on northbound Hawthorne Boulevard and saw dozens of southbound cars in the funeral motorcade.

The two motorcycles were in a line and as the first one turned slightly, the second struck it hard from behind, Mitchell said.

"They hit each other and one of them flew into the other lane," he said.

Mitchell did not see what happened to Garton. Other police officers immediately swarmed the scene to help the officer, he said.

Fowler received a broken leg and was hospitalized in stable condition Friday after undergoing a successful surgery, Torrance police Sgt. Jeremiah Hart said.

"The doctors are really pleased with the outcome and they think he'll be fully recovered within six months," the sergeant said.

Garton was the first officer to die in the line of duty in the 89-year history of the Hawthorne police force.

Many of the 95 sworn officers in the department were allowed to stay home on Friday as they tried to deal with the tragedy, and personnel from neighboring departments were helping patrol the community in southeastern Los Angeles County.

Officers needed time to "collect their thoughts and grieve," and some were detailed to sit with Garton's family, police Lt. Gary Tomatani said.

"That's our top priority at this point," he said. "It's rough. This is definitely uncharted territory."

A trust fund had been set up to help Garton's family, he added.

The Hawthorne and Torrance police departments also brought in counselors to help officers deal with the emotional fallout from the accident, he said.

"Motorcycle officers in the south bay, they work together all the time. A lot of people knew him," Hart said of Garton. "Everybody's real sad."

Garton and Fowler were providing traffic control for the funeral of Manhattan Beach Officer Mark Vasquez, 36, who died of cancer earlier this month.

"When that crash happened, a majority of the motorcycle officers pulled off so they could assist" while a few conducted Vasquez's family to the grave site, Hart said.

"After the burial, once that was all done, the family was notified (of Garton's crash)," Hart said. "That's emotional for them, too."

The cause of the crash remained under investigation by the California Highway Patrol.

Mitchell said both officers were traveling surprisingly rapidly alongside the slow motorcade.

"Why are they going so fast in a funeral procession?" he said. "It wasn't a chase or anything."

Eyewitnesses have said the officers appeared to be "leapfrogging," a procedure in which officers stop to block cross-traffic so slow-moving processions can go through red lights, then race ahead to block the next cross-street.

Hart said he did not know the details of how the funeral was organized but said motorcycle officers are trained to cover such processions, and during quarterly sessions they practice emergency braking, evasion techniques and riding in a group.

"For a funeral, all the involved motorcycle officers will gather ... they have safety briefing," he said. "They talk about the route, they talk about the traffic conditions ... It's general procedure."

Part of that planning would include agreeing on radio frequencies so the traffic control officers can communicate, he said.

"This is extremely rare," Hart said. "I can't think of a time when we've had this happen. Funeral processions are planned events...there's a lot of focus on safety."

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