The driver of the mangled school bus sat on a curb, bloodied and screaming, as emergency workers and others tended her injuries and tried to calm her. Suddenly, she sprang to her feet and darted back to the bus to try to help the injured children.
Dozens of others -- office workers, a Metrobus driver, nearby residents, firefighters, paramedics -- also rushed to the school bus, knowing that children were trapped inside. The rescuers helped 14 children from Arlington's Hoffman-Boston Elementary School off the bus.
But a 15th child, 9-year-old Lilibeth Gomez, a playful soccer lover who made family and friends laugh, was dead.
The morning routine, in which thousands of yellow buses ferry children to school, turned tragic at 8:40 yesterday in Arlington when a garbage truck and the bus carrying children to school collided on Columbia Pike, killing the third-grade girl and injuring the other students.
"I was horrified by it," said Arlington Police Chief Doug Scott. "I've never seen that kind of extreme damage on a school bus."
For parents, yesterday's crash shattered the trust they had in sending their children off to school.
"To think your child could have been here, it's just too devastating," said Ana Paredes, who rushed to the accident scene and whose 12-year-old son was on a school bus two minutes behind the crash. "I thought he was on the bus. I was just frantic."
Last night, investigators and school officials said it would take time to sort out exactly what happened at Columbia Pike and South Courthouse Road.
Arlington police were interviewing witnesses and seeking others. They said James Wallace, 41, was driving a 2002 Mack trash-hauling truck eastbound on Columbia Pike just as the bus, facing west, was making a left turn onto South Courthouse Road when the vehicles collided. The bus was in the left-turn lane, but investigators did not know whether it was already in the intersection.
The trash truck pushed into the bus, leaving a trail of debris as it continued east before it jumped a curb and struck a tree, where it remained for several hours. Wallace is cooperating in the investigation, Scott said.
Wallace and the school bus driver, whom authorities declined to identify, have perfect work-related driving records -- Wallace for 18 years with AAA & Rainbow Recycling and Trash Removal and the bus driver for 11 years with the Arlington County schools, officials said.
"I know the bus driver, and I think she's very competent," said Ellen Jackovich, vice president of the Hoffman-Boston PTA, whose son Ryan, 8, was on the bus. "She's very strict, and that's what the kids need."
Scott said the investigation indicates that the light on Columbia Pike was green when the accident occurred and that speed does not appear to have been a factor.
Two students remained at Children's Hospital last night: an 11-year-old girl who was in critical condition and a 7-year-old boy who was in serious condition. The drivers were at other hospitals, both critically injured. Twelve students were treated at Virginia Hospital Center and released.