More than 20 Los Angeles county sheriff’s academy recruits were injured early Wednesday morning when an SUV driving the wrong way hit the class while they were on a training run.

Authorities have detained a 22-year-old driver in connection with the incident, which left 25 people injured, five critically, including head trauma, broken bones and “loss of limb”, said Sheriff Alex Villanueva.

“It looked like an airplane wreck,” Villanueva said. “There were so many bodies scattered everywhere in different states of injury that it was pretty traumatic for all individuals involved.”

A vehicle struck the class of 75 recruits while they were on a training run around dawn in Whittier, a Los Angeles suburb that is home to the department’s Star Explorer Training Academy, officials said. The group was running in four columns with two black-and-white radio cars and eight “road guards” wearing reflective vests, authorities said.

The Honda CR-V was driving south when it crossed into northbound lanes and hit the recruits, who regularly run in the area in groups wearing “high-visibility vests”, Fox 11 reported. The vehicle then crashed into a nearby light pole.

“Thank God for that light pole, because the vehicle ultimately hit it and stopped, as opposed to possibly hitting more recruits,” Captain Patrick Macdonald of the academy said.

A nearby county fire station immediately transported some of the most severely injured recruits to hospitals, possibly saving their lives, said Anthony C Marrone, a county fire chief.

Four had moderate injuries and 16 had minor injuries. One of those injured is on a ventilator, the sheriff said. Injured recruits were transported to about seven different hospitals, said Sheila Kelliher, a spokesperson and captain with the Los Angeles county fire department.

“So far, it looks like it’s an accident, a horrific accident,” Villanueva said.

Footage from TV news helicopters showed a large response of firefighters and ambulances, a grey SUV on a sidewalk next to a toppled light pole as well as numerous individuals nearby in uniform workout clothes. Running shoes and a backpack were strewn on the ground as was a 25mph speed limit sign.

The California highway patrol (CHP) is investigating the incident. Officials are looking at all possibilities, from an intentional act to impaired driving, said Charlie Sampson, the assistant chief of the CHP.

Authorities have not yet identified the driver, describing him only as a 22-year-old man from suburban Diamond Bar who suffered a minor injury. The driver passed a field sobriety test, the sheriff said. The Los Angeles Times reported that law enforcement sources had told the newspaper that the driver had said he was sleepy.

“We know for sure we have a 22-year-old male driver that was going the wrong way and ran into the class,” Kelliher said at a press conference Wednesday morning. “At this point that is what we know. We don’t know much else about the driver.”

In a statement, California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, said: “Our hearts are with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s recruits injured this morning while training to serve their communities.”

“Jennifer and I send our best wishes for their recovery and stand with their loved ones and colleagues at the Los Angeles county sheriff’s department during this difficult time.”

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