VOORHEESVILLE, N.Y. – An out-of-control SUV, its driver's foot possibly stuck on the gas pedal, drove onto a sidewalk Wednesday morning and killed three women in a walking group before crashing into a church, police said.
The driver, 55-year-old Luann Burgess, had just dropped off a foster child at a nearby elementary school summer program. At about 8:30 a.m., as she returned along the route she drove every day, the SUV accelerated off the road near St. Matthew's Roman Catholic Church, acting Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple said.
Burgess' foot or a flip-flop she was wearing apparently interfered with the gas pedal, he said.
The 2007 Toyota Highlander ran through part of a parking lot and hit the women as they waited near the church for a companion, authorities said. The SUV continued 70 or 80 feet, dragging two bodies as it ran under a covered church entryway, smashed iron railings and crashed into the brick wall of the bell tower.
"All of a sudden we heard this horrendous noise and crash," said Kathy Leroux, a member of the walking club. "Everybody was trying to figure out what was going on. Somebody ran over to open the car door, and then someone yelled 'We need a blanket! We need a blanket!'"
"It was awful. Awful," she said.
Apple, a 24-year veteran in law enforcement, described the accident in the picturesque village as "horrific" and "the most gruesome" he has witnessed.
Hours after the accident, the victims' six sneakers lay under a bush where a floppy hat hung from a branch.
Burgess was being treated at Albany Medical Center for injuries that weren't life-threatening. None of the congregants in the church for morning Mass was hurt.
District Attorney David Soares said at the scene that it was too early to say whether the driver would be charged.
Toyota has been buffeted by safety recalls and lawsuits connected to accelerator problems. Earlier this year, about 400,000 Highlanders made between 2004 and 2006 were recalled to replace carpeting and retention clips on the driver's side that could interfere with the accelerator pedal arm.
The three women were part of a group of about 50 who were on a 5-kilometer guided walk organized by the Empire State Capital Volkssporters, which sponsors outings for its 300 members in the Albany-Troy-Schenectady area.
The victims were 66-year-old Carol Lansing, of Green Island, and 79-year-old Rosemarie Hume and 81-year-old Fran Pallozzi, both of Waterford.
Members of Volkssporters remembered the victims as delightful women who regularly participated in club events for fitness and friendship.
"It's devastating for our club," said club President Lea Darling. "We have a wonderful group of people. We don't just walk. We also have birthday parties, picnics, a Christmas party and other get-togethers."
Darling called Pallozzi "a sweetheart."
"She was one of those people that we would look up to and epitomize, saying 'You're showing us all that you don't have to just sit and complain about your aches and pains when you get older, you can continue to enjoy life and the people around you,'" Darling said.
Doug Reynolds said he and his wife were putting on sunscreen while the women walked across the road to use the church restroom.
"If we were on a country road walking five abreast, you could understand it," Reynolds said. "But standing on a sidewalk in front of a church? It's just unreal."
Eileen Skinner of Clifton Park has been a member of the club since 1989 and said all three women were devoted members of the club.
"Of the three, I probably knew Fran the best," she said Wednesday evening. "Fran was a lovely lady. I mean she was 81 but she was out there doing six miles with us almost every week."
Michael and Kazzy Gainor, longtime village residents, said the neighborhood where the accident happened is popular with walkers, runners and cyclists because it's not heavily traveled, especially on weekday mornings after most people have headed off to jobs in Albany.
"This is a great community for walking and other activities," Kazzy Gainor said.
AP writer Mary Esch contributed to this report from Albany.
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