NEW ORLEANS -- Police today suspended a detective who fired into a high school marching band at a Carnival parade, wounding three people and sending screaming spectators running for cover.
The parade carried nine Marines who were held hostage in Iran, but they were a few blocks away when the shooting occurred late Sunday and were unhurt.
It was the worst incident in a Carnival season -- leading up to Tuesday's Mardi Gras -- that has otherwise been described as 'mellow.'
The officer, detective John Walters, was on duty in street clothes working a 'lost child' detail on the fringe of the French Quarter. Police spokesman Don Joly said Walters 'discharged his weapon in an unauthorized manner' after a scuffle with a member of the St. Augustine High School band marching unit.
Thousands of spectators mobbed the area on Canal Street, near the parade disbanding area.
Two of the injured -- a band member and a parade spectator -- were hospitalized. Both spoke with reporters today from their hospital beds.
'I was looking to my left ... I heard a shot, looked in the direction, then I felt it,' said John Barker, 20, of Plaquemine, La., who was hit while watching the Bacchus parade. 'I thought I might be dying.'
Dozens of police charged into the area on horseback and with ambulances.
Barker suffered a wound in the groin while St. Augustine band drum major Ray Johnson, 17, was wounded in the neck.
A third man, Gary Bartley, 20, of New Orleans, was standing about 100 feet away. He suffered powder burns and police said they were unsure whether the incident was related, and if so, how.
Joly said Walters, a 10-year police veteran, was suspended indefinitely without pay while Internal Affairs and the Major Offenses Bureau conducted separate investigations. Acting police Superintendent Henry Morris oversaw the investigations, which involved interviews with more than 30 witnesses.
Walters was white and the entire St. Augustine band is black, but Joly said he did not know if race was a factor. Several racial flare-ups involving marching bands have resulted in injuries and arrests on parade routes this Carnival season.
'We heard a shot like a firecracker from across the street,' said Kathie Gordon of Midwest City, Okla. 'Everybody was running every which way and screaming, and they were trying to get the Purple Knight that was injured some help.'
'The drum major in the St. Augustine band apparently had been shot in the neck and came walking back towards us,' Jim Brown of St. Louis said.
It was the worst incident reported in a Carnival season that has been marked by what police called 'mellow' and 'well-behaved' crowds.
Earlier in the week, however, another high school band marching in a Carnival parade was attacked by a group of spectators who smashed their instruments. Police arrested five people in that incident. Since then, school officials have surrounded many marching bands with chaperones.
The 24-float Bacchus parade, which leads up to the big Mardi Gras celebration on Tuesday, was headed by a red, white and blue unit carrying eight of the Marines held hostage in Iran for 444 days. A ninth former hostage rode the next float as Bacchus XIII.
Several of the Marines guzzled champagne and beer as the floats snaked down historic St. Charles Avenue before thousands of screaming onlookers. Women rushed to the floats to kiss them whenever they stopped.
The Marines tossed beads and doubloons to the screaming mob and swayed in time to the music of 'Marine Corps Hymn' played by a Marine band.
'It's fantastic,' Sgt. Kevin Hermening said. 'It's a lot larger than I expected. It even rivals the ticker-tape parade in New York.
'We're just loving the people and getting loved back.'
Hundreds of thousands will line parade routes today and Tuesday as the Carnival season comes to a wild climax. Two more parades are scheduled tonight and eight will run in the metro area during the day on Mardi Gras.