Updated December 10, 2020 - 11:34 pm
Michael Anderson was pedaling alongside some of his closest friends Thursday on a stretch of highway near Searchlight, surrounded by miles of open desert, when a box truck plowed into the group of nearly 20 bicyclists and their safety escort vehicle.
Four men and one woman were killed, while four others were injured, including the escort vehicle’s driver. It was the deadliest vehicle vs. bicyclist crash in Nevada since 2004, the earliest year for which state data on such crashes is available.
“It’s just the worst thing I could ever see in my life,” Anderson, a former Las Vegas police officer, said Thursday afternoon as he fought back tears.
The crash unfolded at about 9:40 a.m. in the southbound lanes of U.S. Highway 95, which has a speed limit of 75 mph, near Nelson Road.
Message from governor
Anderson said the group had set out early Thursday from M Resort in Henderson to complete the roughly 130-mile Nipton Loop — just as they have done each year for the past 15 years.
But as the group approached Searchlight, an unincorporated town about 50 miles south of Las Vegas, winds started to pick up.
According to Anderson, that’s when about seven riders broke off from the larger group of bicyclists, sliding behind their safety escort vehicle for cover. Anderson stayed with the larger group.
And then suddenly, a white, unmarked box truck hit those bicyclists from behind, pinning them against the safety escort vehicle — a silver Subaru hatchback carrying food, water and spare tires.
“All of them were hit,” Anderson said of his friends who had been riding behind the escort vehicle, which was thrust forward into the other bicyclists after the initial impact.
The five cyclists who did not survive the crash were pronounced dead at the scene.
Of the three injured cyclists, one was flown to University Medical Center in critical condition, another was taken by ambulance with survivable injuries, and a third had minor injuries and declined to go to the hospital. The Subaru’s driver was taken to Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center.
Gov. Steve Sisolak offered his condolences on Twitter a few hours later: “I was devastated to hear this news this morning. Kathy and I are sending all our love to the families affected and to those on the scene responding to the situation.”
If the crash had not occurred, the group would have continued on from Searchlight to Nipton and Jean before looping back toward M Resort along Interstate 15.
‘Good, strong athletes’
Anderson, who spoke to a group of reporters about 12 miles from where he witnessed his friends die, did not mention any special circumstances surrounding this year’s group ride.
But Lelani Gonzalez, a manager at Pro Cyclery, a local bike shop, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the group was on an informal ride to celebrate the retirement of one of the bicyclists.
Anderson retired last month after 22 years with the Metropolitan Police Department.
Gonzalez said one of the shop’s employees had been on the ride and survived, though it was obvious even in a brief phone call that he was shaken by the event.
“He was just beside himself,” she said. “He couldn’t even talk.”
Trooper Travis Smaka, a spokesman for the Nevada Highway Patrol, which is leading the investigation into the crash, said Thursday that information about the victims was not available, including ages or cities of residence.
Friends later identified the female victim as Las Vegas resident Erin Ray, a 43-year-old real estate agent and avid cyclist.
News of the crash and its victims spread quickly on Thursday within the tight-knit cycling community in Southern Nevada, according to Cheri Tillman, co-owner of the bike shop.
“Everybody that we’ve heard that got hurt or killed is very well known in the cycling community,” she told the Review-Journal, adding that many of the cyclists who were part of the group ride are regular customers at her store. “They’re all good, strong athletes.”
The Clark County coroner’s office will identify the bicyclists after their families have been notified of their deaths, which pushed the number of bicyclists killed on Clark County roadways this year to eight. Statewide, according to the Nevada Department of Public Safety, that figure jumps to 10.
No impairment suspected
For hours after the crash, U.S. 95 was closed in both directions for the investigation and for cleanup efforts.
Photos of the scene during the highway shutdown — taken by a Review-Journal photographer from inside a helicopter — showed the white box truck parked on the shoulder of the highway, its windshield shattered and the driver’s side door left wide open. Behind it, on the edge of the shoulder, lay a mangled bicycle.
Markings painted on the ground by investigators, in bright orange paint, indicated where the box truck came to a rest.
What caused the truck to hit the cyclists was under investigation Thursday, but Smaka, the Highway Patrol trooper, said impairment was not suspected, and the uninjured truck driver was cooperating with investigators.
Nevada law requires drivers to maintain at least 3 feet of space when passing bicyclists.
Alan Snel, a longtime Las Vegas bicycle enthusiast and an author who campaigns for increased safety for riders, said Thursday, “As a bicyclist, you could do everything absolutely correctly, and you could still be maimed or killed.”
Snel was seriously injured in 2017 when he was struck by a car while cycling in Florida and since has been a strong advocate for bicyclist safety reforms in the United States.
Hours after the crash, Anderson and a couple of the other surviving cyclists got back on their bikes.
From the site of the crash, depending on what route they took, the riders would have had nearly four hours to sit with their thoughts before reaching their parked cars at M Resort, including what they would say to the families of those who died.
“I don’t know how to say it to them,” Anderson said before making the return trip. “It’s terrible.”
Review-Journal staff writers Katelyn Newberg, Glenn Puit, Sabrina Schnur and Alexis Ford and video reporter James Schaeffer contributed to this report.
Vigil planned for bicycle crash victims
A vigil in the form of a drive-thru memorial will take place Saturday to honor the five cyclists killed in a crash Thursday near Searchlight. Saturday’s event will be held between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. outside the Las Vegas Cyclery parking lot, 10575 Discovery Drive.
In addition, a Facebook live vigil hosted by Save Red Rock is slated for 3 p.m. Saturday.
Flowers and donations to the families will be accepted.