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Minnesota carriage driver injured in ride dies

Fred Zwart waits with his team of horses to give wagon rides during the Winterfest. RON ADAMS / FORUM NEWS SERVICE

WILLMAR, Minn. — Fred Zwart, the horse-drawn wagon driver injured in a Saturday, Dec. 10, crash during a Christmas light celebration in rural Willmar, died Dec. 15. He was 80.

Funeral arrangements are pending with Harvey Anderson Funeral Home in Willmar, according to a death notice posted to the funeral home's website.

Zwart, of rural New London, Minn., and his horse-drawn wagons were well-known in the area and seen frequently at community events.

Fred Zwart (Forum News Service photo by Ron Adams)

At the time of the crash, he had been driving a carriage of 15 passengers during the popular "Celebrate the Light of the World" outdoor light festival at the Chad and Angela Koosman residence north of Willmar that serves as a major fundraiser for the Salvation Army.

"Our hearts are heavy and our prayers are with the family of Fred Zwart who lost his life while valiantly saving the lives of his passengers," Salvation Army spokesman Jeffrey DeMars said Thursday. "We are mourning this loss in our community and ask for prayers for all those affected."

According to the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office, for some unknown reason, the horses were spooked as they took guests to an area on the sprawling grounds to be photographed with Santa Claus.

They bolted for about a mile before turning into a driveway and crashing into a basketball pole.

Zwart had been credited as a hero by witnesses for his control of the horses during the incident, keeping the wagon from tipping into the ditch, the Sheriff's Office said.

He was the worst hurt. The pole struck him, knocking him out of his seat and into the back of the wagon. He suffered a heart attack and back injury sometime during the crash, family members told a Salvation Army spokesman.

When law enforcement arrived at the scene at 7:20 p.m. Saturday, Zwart was unresponsive, had no pulse and was not breathing. Life-saving measures were performed at the scene, and he was transported to Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar and then to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis in critical condition. His condition continued to be classified as critical until he died at the hospital Thursday.

"Our thoughts and our prayers are with the Zwart family," homeowner and festival founder Chad Koosman said Thursday.

Some of the 15 passengers in the wagon were also transported by ambulance to Rice Memorial Hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. Most were treated and released, according to the Sheriff's Office.