WILLMAR, Minn. — A festive Christmas light celebration Saturday, Dec. 10, near Willmar had a tragic end when several passengers and the driver of horse-drawn wagon were injured after the horses got spooked and ran for about a mile before crashing in a yard.
The passengers had non-life-threatening injuries but emergency life-saving measures were performed on the driver, who was taken to Rice Memorial Hospital in critical condition and later transferred to the Hennepin County Medical Center.
Although the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office did not identify the driver, a family member and other sources close to the individual have identified him as Fred Zwart of rural New London.
Zwart and his horse-drawn wagons are well-known in the area and are seen frequently at community events.
The wagon ride was part of the popular "Celebrate the Light of the World" outdoor light festival at the Chad and Angela Koosman residence north of Willmar that serves as a major fundraiser for the Salvation Army.
The wagon was being used to take guests to an area on the sprawling grounds called "Santa's Den" to be photographed with Santa Claus.
According to a press release issued early Sunday morning, passengers in the wagon told law enforcement that something spooked the horses that caused them to go out of control.
The horses bolted and pulled the wagon and about 15 passengers down Kandiyohi County Road 26 before turning north onto County Road 9.
Zwart was attempting to regain control of the horses and a passenger told law enforcement that the driver did a "good job" of keeping the wagon on the road without tipping into the ditch.
According to the sheriff's report, the out-of-control ride went about three-quarters of a mile north on County Road 9 and then turned into a driveway where the wagon collided with a basketball pole.
A portion of the pole struck the driver and knocked him out of the seat and into the back of the wagon.
At the same time, a portion of the wagon canopy and structure collapsed on the passengers.
The horses kept running as the basketball pole, backboard and hoop were dragged behind the wagon.
The horses ran southbound on County Road 9 for about a quarter of a mile before a vehicle was able to slow, and then stop, the horses.
When law enforcement arrived at the scene at 7:20 p.m. the driver was unresponsive, had no pulse and was not breathing.
Life-saving measures were performed at the scene, according to the press release.
He was transported to the emergency room at Rice Memorial Hospital and later taken to HCMC, where he is in critical condition.
Some of the 15 passengers in the wagon were also transported by ambulance to Rice Memorial Hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. Most were treated and released, according to the sheriff's office.