PELLA, Iowa — Don French, a cashier at the Walmart here for almost five years, was shopping inside the store Thursday morning when he heard a loud crash.
A silver Ford F-150 pickup truck broke through the store's front doors. After it came to a rest, near a refrigerator in the produce department, three people were dead and two others were injured.
Witnesses said the truck was traveling at a high rate of speed as it went through the building entrance. The truck took out a concrete bollard placed outside the Walmart entrance to block vehicles from the door.
Police and Walmart officials had not released the victims' identities as of Thursday evening. But French told The Des Moines Register that two of the people killed were store employees.
"I'm personally shaken to hear about the loss of friends," he said. "We're a small town. We'll come together and get through this. That's what we do."
Few details about the cause of the collision were released Thursday, but authorities said the incident did not appear to be intentional. Iowa State Patrol spokesman Sgt. Nathan Ludwig said the pickup's driver and lone occupant, an older man, was transported to a hospital with injuries.
Charles Crowson, a corporate communications manager for Walmart, said in a statement that the company was "heartbroken by what appears to be a tragic accident."
"Our focus right now is on our associates, customers and gathering information," the statement said. "We will continue working closely with law enforcement and emergency responders."
A 911 caller first alerted authorities to the crash shortly before 10 a.m. on Thursday. The store was closed throughout the day as emergency crews investigated the scene.
Alek Vink, a cashier at the Sports Page, said he was in the process of opening his store when the crash occurred. The sporting goods store sits in a strip of businesses across the parking lot from the Walmart.
"All of a sudden, I heard a big crash," said Vink, 20. "I didn't really see anything ... but then came a bunch of police cars, firetrucks and an ambulance."
Jamie McCarty, an employee at a Sally Beauty Supply store in the strip, was working near the front of the store when she heard a voice over loudspeakers telling people to evacuate the Walmart. She did not see the truck go into the building.
"You could just see people running out," she said. "People were clustering around the front of the building, and they were, like, screaming at them, 'Step back, move back.'"
Within minutes, law enforcement officers arrived and ran into the building with guns drawn, McCarty said. Not knowing what had transpired, she and her coworkers considered locking the doors to her store, she said.
"We watched them run in armed with guns," she said. "Originally, I thought bomb threat or terroristic threat or something."
Shortly before 4 p.m., tow truck workers ran lines into the store and attached them to the battered pickup. Shattered glass, other debris and wrecked store displays could be seen as the pickup truck was removed. A pallet of Budweiser beer cases sat just feet from the truck, apparently untouched in the crash.
The truck's left tire was flat and its front end was mangled, with both headlights apparently ripped from the body.
By 6 p.m. Thursday, more than 100 people gathered at the First Christian Reformed Church for a prayer vigil. Pella resident Martena DeGroot, 84, sipped a cup of coffee in a pew near the back of the church. Her grandson is a Walmart employee, and though he was not working, he was too saddened by the news to be at the vigil.
"He is very, very shook up," she said.
DeGroot was at the store herself on Thursday to pick up medicine and left approximately 10 minutes before the crash occurred, she said. She was in a grocery store when she heard about the collision.
"I just right away prayed for all those involved," he said.
Earlier in the day, vehicles drove through the Wal-Mart parking lot as people stopped to witness the scene.
Pella, a town of 10,352 residents, is located about 40 miles southeast of Des Moines.
Sebastian Martin, another Walmart employee, came to the parking lot after hearing about the crash to see if he was needed at his shift Thursday night.
"It kinda freaked me out a bit," Martin said. "Not a lot goes on in a small town. When something like this happens, it's a big deal."