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Condolences Pour In for Va. Crash Victims

Community Opens Hearts, Wallets After Bus Accident

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page C01

The messages, scrawled with a black, felt-tip pen, read like a mantra, as if repeating the words enough times would make everything okay again: "Bless you." "I'm sorry." "Lo siento mucho." "That was not right what happened to you."

The signers were Nada, Elijah, Beniam, Naveen, Andrew and many of the 84 elementary school riders of Alexandria Public School Bus No. 27. When they heard about Monday's fatal school bus crash in Arlington, the students -- from John Adams and James K. Polk elementary schools -- wanted to help.

Alexandria school bus driver Michael Stephens collected money from students for victims of the Arlington crash. (Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

"They asked me, 'Mr. Michael, what happened?' 'Why did a little girl get killed?' " said their driver, Michael Stephens. "My thing was to reassure them."

So Stephens made a large red card for them to sign and collected the dollar bills, nickels, dimes, quarters and pennies they had culled from their pockets for the family of 9-year-old Lilibeth Gomez, the smiling little girl whose picture they had seen in the paper, a girl who looked a lot like them.

Later in the week, after a second child, a 7-year-old named Harrison Orosco, died of his injuries from the crash, they started all over again.

"They had talked about all the money they sent to other countries for the tidal wave," Stephens said, "and if they could help other countries, why couldn't they help here? -- which I thought was really powerful for them, to note stuff like that. They were really aware of what happened to those two little kids."

Cards and flowers have poured in all week to Arlington's Hoffman-Boston Elementary School, where the bus was heading when it crashed. The accident injured 13 other children on the bus and two adults. Students at St. Ann's School in Arlington made cards and letters decorated with rainbows, hearts and flowers. Students from the Quander Road School in Fairfax County signed a poster.

A girl from Fairfax wrote a poem about the accident, and another from Alexandria drew a picture of Lilibeth in a blue gown, smiling. A "stranger from Baltimore" sent a sympathy card, and a school board member from Bowling Green, Mo., wrote that last year a student had died in a school bus accident there.

Tragedy often elicits an outpouring of support from strangers. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and during the sniper shootings, help came from around the world from people who were shocked by the unimaginable evil of the attacks and the number of victims. But a school bus on its normal rounds is so familiar, and the possibility of an accident so imaginable, that people felt it could happen in their neighborhood on any day.

The 1997 film "The Sweet Hereafter" used a school bus accident to explore how a tragic aberration in a daily routine can affect an entire community. The look of those yellow buses has hardly changed over generations; for people of all ages, they have a comforting quality as they tootle through neighborhoods, picking up and dropping off their charges.

So pictures of one crumpled up and shattered can be all the more terrifying, especially to those who ride them. "The [image of a] child on a school bus would speak to the children," said Joyce Cooper-Kahn, a child psychologist in Severna Park. "It's something they do every day, which makes it so scary."

A twinge of guilt laced a few of the children's messages, as if the writers knew their offerings were modest compared with the pain they sought to allay. "I apologize for your traumatic incident and I hope you all will get better!" one child wrote. "I am here for the bus driver and the school and for the family," wrote another.

The accident has resonated with adults as well. Besides a PTA fund set up for the victims, an anonymous donor offered to pay for Lilibeth's funeral. A funeral home, a limousine company and a cemetery donated their services for Harrison's, and several private businesses collected money for his family. The studio that took the Hoffman-Boston school pictures this year sent a package with CDs and prints of her photo to the school and planned to do the same with Harrison's.

For those who felt compelled to help, the first impulse was often to send a card or money -- to comfort not only the bereaved but also themselves. "Anything that makes somebody feel vulnerable or scared, they might need to take control," Cooper-Kahn said. "People reach out as a way of gaining mastery over the situation."

On Stephens's bus, a copy of a newspaper article with pictures of Lilibeth and the wrecked bus hung above the driver's seat last week. He said he was not trying to scare his passengers. "It's just a reminder to the kids of what can happen," he said, "and to stress how important it is to be sitting at all times." He said he planned to replace it this week with a story about Harrison.

Cooper-Kahn said she thought such a display was "probably too graphic for the kids. . . . It keeps it in front of their face rather than letting them ask questions," she said. Noting that a bus driver could also be affected by the story of what happened to a colleague, she added, "He may be a bit overidentified for some reason. It may be his own need to keep it alive."

By the end of the week, the little wooden box of money on Stephens's bus was almost full again. Students on his Francis C. Hammond Middle School route had joined the elementary school students in wanting to do something, and he had special-ordered an oversized card for the children to sign and send to Harrison's family.

Stephens, who is a parent of an Arlington student, attended Lilibeth's wake Thursday night and talked to her mother and father.

"I wanted to let them know that we do care because we drive them every day," he said. "Believe it or not, she even remembered the card. She said it was outstanding, and she said, 'Thank you very much.' "

© 2005 The Washington Post Company