KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Dubbed the "Chain Gang," an informal group of bicyclists in their 40s to 70s pedaled off for their weekly ride.
It started at 6 p.m., every Tuesday: a tradition the group had been keeping for more than 15 years.
About a half-hour into Tuesday night's ride, that tradition turned to unthinkable horror: As the bike riders climbed a hill heading north on a two-lane road north of Kalamazoo, a blue Chevrolet pickup plowed into the group from behind, killing five and injuring four.
Mangled bikes and debris scattered across the 5500 block of North Westnedge Avenue in Cooper Township.
Bob Coffman, 68, walked outside his house to see the truck, which he said "looked like it hit a brick wall." The hood was folded back from the smashed front end. He walked down his driveway but stopped after police said, "You don't want to look at this," Coffman said.
A 50-year-old man got out of the truck and fled on foot but was caught by police, the Associated Press reported. The driver, whose name has not been officially released, remained in custody, and criminal charges were expected to be announced Thursday by the Kalamazoo County Prosecutor's Office.
Prosecutor Jeff Getting identified the five cyclists who were killed as Debra Ann Bradley, 53, of Augusta; Melissa Ann Fevig-Hughes, 42, of Augusta; Fred Anton (Tony) Nelson, 73, of Kalamazoo; Lorenz John (Larry) Paulik, 74, of Kalamazoo; and Suzanne Joan Sippel, 56, of Augusta. The injured cyclists are Paul Douglas Gobble, 47, of Richland; Sheila Diane Jeske, 53, of Richland; Jennifer Lynn Johnson, 40, of Kalamazoo; and Paul Lewis Runnels, 65, of Richland.
But it remained unclear Wednesday why the tragedy happened.
"I pray to God that it wasn't malicious," Cooper Township Supervisor Jeff Sorensen said. "I hope that it was something maybe medical that caused this to happen. But if it's not, then we'll have to deal with it."
Sorensen and Kalamazoo Mayor Bobby Hopewell visited the scene Wednesday afternoon. Numerous cyclists stopped by and later took a silent ride from downtown Kalamazoo. Flowers and a cross were left at the scene as a makeshift memorial, along with five white-painted ghost bikes. The placing of the white bikes has become a global tradition to honor cyclists killed on roads.
The Chain Gang, an experienced group of "excellent riders," knew the rules of the road, said Dan Stewart, 56, who owns the Custer Cyclery bike shop in Augusta, a nearby community of less than 1,000 that was home to some of the victims. Stewart said he's sold bicycles to members of the group — many of whom are more friends than customers — and he's thinking of their families.
"It's beyond words," he said of the tragedy. "I know how much I'm hurting. I can't even imagine what they're going through."
The road segment where the crash occurred doesn't curve. And with its uphill slope, it would seem cyclists would be easily visible to the northbound traffic behind them.
The mass-fatality incident comes less than four months after a Feb. 20 shooting rampage that left six people dead and two others critically wounded across the Kalamazoo area, where about 335,000 people live.
"I've never seen incidents of this magnitude as mayor," said Hopewell, who has been in office since 2007.
Jason Dalton, 45, is charged with six murder counts among 16 total counts in the shooting case.
Something the two cases have in common: 911 calls spanning multiple dispatch centers complaining of an erratic driver before people died.
With the shootings, there'd been complaints that an Uber driver, later identified as Dalton, had been scaring customers and was driving erratically. On Tuesday, there were three separate 911 calls, beginning about 30 minutes before the crash, about a pickup that was being driven dangerously.
"There was not one person that wouldn't have wanted to get this guy off the streets when the first call came in," Hopewell, who has experience as a paramedic, said of Tuesday's incident.
He declined to specify the nature of the complaints. He said the area's first responders "have just been amazing," given the circumstances.
"They did a yeoman's job at searching for this truck when it was doing whatever it was doing and unfortunately didn't find it," he said.
The mayor, himself a cyclist, said it's a sad day and that the city still has work to do to make roads safer for sharing in general.
Stewart said he's hopeful that if there's any positive result from this tragedy, it will affect the "severe lack of awareness" motorists have of rules for sharing the road. While the greater Kalamazoo area has a vibrant bicycling community, many motorists aren't respectful, he said.
"I've been assaulted and harassed," Stewart said. "I've had bottles thrown at me. … I've been hit in the head with an egg."
He previously rode with the Chain Gang about six to eight years ago. He prefers off-road riding on trails, he said, because he'd rather watch out for trees than cars. He said he thought group rides are safer, as people watch out for each other.
"We're not a nuisance," he said. "We're human beings. These are someone's children. We're not a piece of — an animal, riding across the road."
An outpouring of sympathy came Wednesday from across the cycling and local communities.
The League of Michigan Bicyclists and Kalamazoo Bicycle Club President Renee Mitchell issued a statement, in which she said, "There is no way to measure the grief we feel at the loss to the Michigan bicycling community.”
Gov. Rick Snyder issued a statement that Michigan State Police have assisted with the investigation and will continue to offer help.
"What we already know for certain is that Michiganders as a family are in mourning today as Kalamazoo struggles to understand another senseless tragedy," he said in the statement.
Follow Robert Allen on Twitter: @rallenMI