The driver of an SUV appeared to deliberately ram the entrance of a diner in McLean, Virginia, during the lunchtime rush Wednesday, hitting a man and causing the vehicle to burst into flames, witnesses said.
A man driving a Hummer crashed three times into the front of the Silver Diner restaurant in Tysons Corner Center about 12:30 p.m., witnesses told News4 in Washington, D.C. A Fairfax County Police spokesman said he could not confirm whether the crash was deliberate.
The driver hit a man the second time he crashed into the Fletcher Street restaurant, witnesses said. The third time, the SUV burst into orange flames with the driver inside, sending a huge plume of black smoke over the diner.
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"There was total pandemonium in the restaurant," witness Will Yeatman said. He was inside having coffee when the man slammed into the front door and customers scrambled to leave.
Video Yeatman recorded shows people screaming and dragging people away from the fire and crash.
The driver was a cook for the restaurant who had taken bereavement leave, Silver Diner spokeswoman Matilde Ott said. Neither she nor police immediately identified the driver.
The mayhem began when the driver crashed into the front door and then backed up, witnesses said.
He then rammed into the restaurant a second time, trapping a man between the SUV and the door.
"Some people got inside quickly. He wasn't able to and he got pinned against the front door," Yeatman said. "It was really horrible. It was full-force. It looked like as soon as he got hit, he kind of passed out."
The driver then slammed into the restaurant a third time. The SUV burst into flames, sparking a roaring fire. The flames appeared to start between the driver's seat and passenger-side seat, Yeatman said.
Orissa Morgan was at the hostess stand when the driver slammed into the entrance.
"It scared me to death. I thought the whole building was going to blow," she said. "I thought he was going to run those people over. He just didn't stop."
People on the scene said they cut the driver's seat belt to free him, but he asked to be left in the burning car.
"He was fighting. He said, 'Get away from me. Leave me alone, leave me alone,'" witness Janie Watkins said.
Customers and workers managed to extricate the man the driver hit and pull victims into the parking lot before first-responders arrived.
Three people were taken to a hospital, including the driver, police said. A fourth person was treated at the scene. Information wasn't available immediately on whether the man hit by the SUV was taken to the hospital.
The driver, who had been a diner employee for two years, was fired after the crash, the Silver Diner spokeswoman said. He took bereavement leave starting April 5.
Police did not say whether the driver will be charged with a crime. The crash is under investigation.
The wreckage of the Hummer remained in front of the closed restaurant Wednesday evening.
Silver Diner said in a statement issued Wednesday night that the company had "no indication that the employee would harm himself or others."
"Our hearts go out to the families and friends of those injured," the statement said. The company is offering trauma counselors to affected employees and customers. Anyone desiring that service was advised to call 703-239-3324.
Silver Diner has 11 locations in Maryland and Virginia, plus outposts at Baltimore–Washington International Airport and in New Jersey.
Anyone with information on the incident is asked to call police at 703-691-2131.