Justin Hindmand remembers his 81-year-old grandmother, Helen Hindmand, as one of the sweetest women he knew.
His mother died from cancer when he was a child, and Helen became the mother figure in his life, said Justin, 30, a Lincoln, Neb., resident.
“She was a real loving person, a real good-hearted person,” he said.
Helen didn’t really enjoy gambling, he said, but she was an active, social woman who would accompany friends on bus trips from Mesa, Ariz.— where the Nebraska resident vacationed three months of the year — to Laughlin, a resort town about 100 miles south of Las Vegas, where her bus group would gamble at Edgewater Hotel & Casino.
On Wednesday morning, that’s where Helen died.
She was one of several people playing slot machines near the front of the casino at about 9:25 a.m., when police say a 2007 Pontiac Vibe, driven by 70-year-old Walter McGie of Kelso, Wash., blasted through the doors at a high rate of speed.
The vehicle tore through several rows of machines before it came to rest 35 feet inside the casino near the cashier’s cage.
Helen Hindmand and another woman, whose identity has yet to be released, were killed and seven other people were injured.
McGie was treated at the scene for minor injuries and was later was booked into Laughlin’s Tucker Holding Facility on two counts of felony reckless driving causing death.
McGie was freed on $6,000 bail pending arraignment, which a Laughlin Justice Court clerk said was scheduled for March 11.
Police said the driver didn’t stop at the intersection’s red traffic light before entering the Edgewater’s main driveway. The Pontiac continued east on the west side of the driveway before striking a raised median and returning to the east side of the road and crashing into the casino entryway, police said.
Sarah Morga, a spokeswoman for the Western Arizona Regional Medical Center in Bullhead City, Ariz., where six of the injured patrons were taken Wednesday, said two of them were flown to University Medical Center in critical condition. UMC spokeswoman Danita Cohen said today an 80-year-old woman and a 70-year-old woman were in serious condition there.
Morga added that three of the Bullhead hospital patients were treated and released Wednesday, and one patient who stayed overnight was improving today.
Las Vegas police Detective William Redfairn said today that police have not ruled out any possible causes of the crash, including a mechanical malfunction. A certified mechanic had not yet begun looking at the car, he said.
“Everyone wants answers,” Redfairn said. “We have to be careful. Things we find out here could have far-reaching consequences with the recalls of Toyotas and Pontiac Vibes.”
The Vibe is a joint venture between Toyota and General Motors Co. Last month, 2009 and 2010 Vibe models were recalled because of a risk of a floor mat trapping the gas pedal, causing unintended acceleration.
However, the 2007 model involved in the crash was not part of that recall. General Motors spokesman Tom Wilkinson said Wednesday the Vibe underwent significant design changes between the 2008 and 2009 model years. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did not list any defects or recalls for the 2007 Vibe in its database.
“We may find out something here that helps them solve the problem they’re having with sudden acceleration,” Redfairn said. “But until we look at everything, we won’t actually know what caused this crash.”
Police don’t believe McGie was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, but investigators had a medical facility draw blood from him for testing, Redfairn said.
McGie told Redfairn he was coming from a business in the area, and he remembered driving on a road that leads toward the entrance of the 26-story Edgewater on the Colorado River. Redfairn did not name the business. He said McGie told him he didn’t remember passing a red light, speeding down the casino’s driveway and hitting curbs before plowing through the front doors.
“Part of the investigation is looking at his medical history,” Redfairn said. Heather Hindmand, Justin’s sister and Helen’s granddaughter, said the whole family was shocked to learn of their grandmother’s death.
“You hear about tragic things all the time in the news, but you never imagine something that tragic could happen to your loved ones,” she said. “It’s hard to wrap our heads around.”
Although Helen was 81, she didn’t act a day more than 60, said Heather. Her grandmother had been widowed several years ago, but spent her summers driving a 22-foot mobile home around the country, she said.
“She loved to travel,” said Heather. “She’d been to the Czech Republic, Germany, had been on five or six cruises.”
Heather said the family had been told Helen was a possible victim on Wednesday. Today, they were asked by the Clark County coroner’s office to identify her by photos of her and of the rings she was wearing at the time of the accident, she said.
It was a tough task for the family, because of how close they were to Helen.
“Grandma was very much a part of raising and taking us into adulthood,” she said. “Anytime we needed anything, she was there. It’s definitely going to be a hard adjustment.”
McGie’s daughter, Laura White, of Portland, Ore., said her father “will be devastated by this.” She characterized her father as single, friendly and outgoing — a Navy veteran divorced from her mother in the 1970s. He worked for many years as a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. electrical engineer, makes friends easily and splits time in retirement between Washington state and Laughlin, she said. White said she knew of no medical condition that might have affected her father’s ability to drive.
The Associated Press contributed and Review-Journal writer Antonio Planas contributed to this report.
Contact reporter Mike Blasky at email@example.com or 702-383-0283.