'Shocked' friends, family watch fatal accident at Bradenton church

Bradenton HeraldFebruary 4, 2014 

BRADENTON -- John Vanderlaan of Bradenton watched helplessly as his wife of 52 years was run over and killed Sunday.

The 77-year-old Vanderlaan said the nightmare scenario involving his wife, Margaret Vanderlaan, unfolded roughly 20 feet from him. The devastation of his sudden and tragic loss is almost too much to bear, he said.

"She was a real Christian lady, and I don't know how to go on without her," he said. "She is my everything. She finds things I've lost, remembers names I've forgotten and has numbers for me I didn't know I needed."

Vanderlaan said he wished more people could have met the love of his life. He met her 55 years ago when she was a Sunday school teacher, he said. She later taught young women and, in her mid-50s, became leader of a church group that visited a nursing home every Monday, he said.

Vanderlaan said he is waiting for the medical examiner "to release my wife." Then, the family will take her body home for a funeral in Canada.

"She and I have four kids and they are all devastated," he said. "None of them are working today. I called them yesterday and they're all screaming. We have 15 grandkids and they are all nuts about her."

Vanderlaan said his 72-year-old wife looked 10 years younger than her age and deeply loved her family and their life together.

"I can't believe it's over," Vanderlaan said.

Vanderlaan was one of three people killed and four seriously injured during an accident following a church service at the Sugar Creek Country Club. Vanderlaan said he quickly realized his wife was one of the women struck by the vehicle.

"I recognized her dress," he said. "I grabbed somebody's sweater and put it under her head."

The Florida Highway Patrol reports Doreen Landstra of Palmetto, the 79-year-old driver, lost control of her 2009 Chevy Tahoe SUV while trying to leave the parking lot after the service let out.

She hit the gas too hard as she was trying to back out of a cramped parking space, Vanderlaan said.

"She is an older woman who walks with a walker and it's a big truck," he said. "The truck was about 5 feet away from me. I was on the side of it and, as it flew by me, the engine was starting to roar more and more. She went over the top of five or six people. Completely over the top."

The Vanderlaans have spent three months of the year in Manatee County since 2005. The native Canadians usually live the rest of the year in Ontario in a village about 20 miles north of Detroit, he said.

Vanderlaan's wife was good friends with another victim, Wilhemina Paul, 70, affectionately known at Sugar Creek Country Club as Willi. She adored her husband, John, going to garage sales, talking about her hometown in Ontario, being with Florida snowbird friends and her Dutch Reform faith.

The third fatality, Johanna Dijkhoff, 80, was a recent visitor to Manatee County from the Netherlands who was staying with her sister, Sugar Creek resident Dina Muller, said Pastor Gerrit Koedoot, who performed the nondenominational church service Sunday as well as a prayer vigil after the accident.

Koedoot said the stricken families are all grieving deeply.

"They are in shock," Koedoot said. "The two spouses, John and John, told me they don't know what to do. You have to understand, these were people who were in the golden times of their lives. They were doing everything together. They had worked hard and now they were healthy and living to the full, doing the things they loved. The husbands are just lost. But the community will embrace them."

Koedoot also saw the accident. He said he had just gathered his Communion supplies after the service ended at 11 a.m. Sunday and was walking outside the clubhouse with his wife, Ruth, when it happened.

Most of the 220 congregants had already left while a dozen or so lingered in the parking lot to talk, Koedoot said.

"They were just saying, 'Hi, welcome back. How are you doing?' " the pastor said.

Koedoot said he saw Landstra stop the SUV a safe distance from the crowd. Then something went terribly wrong.

"She accelerated at great speed backwards," Koedoot said. "A man standing 4 feet away, well, she literally ran on top of him with both back and front wheels. Bodies were flying everywhere. I have never seen anything like this. We had never had anything like it in the park.

"I was in shock," the pastor said. "Some were screaming."

Koedoot said Landstra kept driving backward at high speed about 30 feet more before the SUV plunged into Sugar Creek, where she and her husband sat uninjured until firemen could get them out later.

"She was also in shock when she came out of the vehicle," Koedoot said.

Landstra was director of the church choir until she retired last year, the pastor said. The pastor called his longtime friend a loving person who has been driving without problems. He said she is exceedingly sharp mentally with only some physical limitations.

"She must be burdened more than anyone else," Koedoot said of Landstra. "How do you deal with three deaths?"

The Florida Highway Patrol is still investigating the accident. No charges have been filed.

The pastor has visited the families of the dead and gone to the hospital to see the injured, but he will wait awhile to go see Landstra in her Palmetto mobile home. But it's a visit he said he will definitely make.

"We need to embrace her, too," Koedoot said.

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