By Robert E. Pierre, Sue Anne Pressley Montes and Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 4, 2007
The woman charged with driving through a crowded Southeast Washington festival this weekend -- injuring dozens -- had been "smoking crack all day long," Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said yesterday, citing witnesses and the woman's statement to police.
The driver, whom police identified as 30-year-old Tonya Bell of Oxon Hill, is charged with aggravated assault while armed. She has felony and misdemeanor arrests dating to at least 1995 and has served time in prison for charges involving cocaine. Bell suffered a sprained ankle Saturday night in an episode Mayor Adrian M. Fenty described as "one of the worst serious traffic accidents" in D.C. history.
At least 40 people, including seven children, were hurt when Bell drove her station wagon through the crowd. In the midst of the mayhem, parents pushed their children aside and tossed empty strollers in her path, hoping to block her. Police on bicycles and motorbikes didn't dare use their weapons with so many people at risk. Instead, they threw two motorized scooters beneath Bell's vehicle, bringing it to a stop.
Bell's expression while driving disturbed witnesses.
She appeared to be laughing, they said.
The incident brought a terrifying end to what had been a peaceful day of music and merriment in historic Anacostia. It occurred about 7:45 p.m. as Unifest, celebrating its 25th year, wound down for the day. Families walking home with plates of fried fish were suddenly scrambling for their lives.
"It was chaos. People were just lying everywhere. There were mangled strollers, kids with broken legs. I saw a woman who was hit so bad, her whole body was twisted," said Linda Greene, who lives at 14th and W streets SE, near the crash site. "One guy was stretched out in the street, and it looked like he wasn't moving at all. You saw people with head injuries just walking the streets, bleeding."
Dozens were treated at the scene, including about 35 people who were taken to eight hospitals. Five people were seriously hurt, officials said, although their injuries were not believed to be life-threatening. By late yesterday, most of the injured had been released, officials said.
"It looks like everyone is going to pull through," Fenty (D) said during a visit to Children's Hospital yesterday, where he met with, among others, a 4-year-old boy whose leg was broken when he was hit by the station wagon.
Investigators are trying to determine exactly what happened. How fast was Bell going? There are conflicting accounts about her speed. Where was she headed? Why didn't she stop? Was she high? If so, for how long? Police are seeking answers to those questions as they await toxicology tests results.
Bell, who is jailed, is to appear today in D.C. Superior Court.
D.C. Council member Marion Barry said his chief of staff is trying to determine whether Bell works as a temporary employee for Barry's council office. Barry (D-Ward 8) said someone named Tonya Bell has worked in the office for several weeks. "Whether it is the same person or not, I am trying to check it out," Barry said last night. "I've asked my chief of staff to try and find out if this Miss Bell is one of several administrative aides we use from temporary agencies."
Bell grew up near the site of this weekend's incident, and several people said they knew her from the streets. Michelle Tillman, 41, said she and Bell were in the same drug rehabilitation program three years ago. "When they said it was Tonya Bell," Tillman said, "it didn't surprise me, because she's got issues."
A 7-year-old who was in the vehicle with Bell on Saturday was uninjured and is being cared for by the city's child protective services agency.
Police are trying to trace Bell's activities in the hours before the crash. The first signs of trouble came at 7:15 p.m., more than a mile away, when Bell rear-ended an unmarked police car working a robbery detail at Chesapeake Street and Southern Avenue, police said. The officers gave chase but broke it off a short time later because they did not have a serious enough charge to continue the pursuit, police said yesterday.
About 20 minutes later, the vehicle was spotted near Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope Road, on the edge of the festival.
Marilyn Wyche, a volunteer emergency medical technician, said a rapper had just finished performing on one of the stages, in the D.C. Lottery's parking lot on Martin Luther King Avenue, bringing the festival to a close for the day. "They had just said 'Thanks for coming, thanks for no violence, see you tomorrow,' " Wyche said.
People started to clear out. Suddenly, Wyche said, she saw a Volvo station wagon moving behind the stage. It hit a table holding massive speakers, causing them to tremble. Then she saw the car cross the parking lot and turn left onto W Street, picking up speed. A man was struck and flew into the air; he crashed down onto the windshield and rolled off the vehicle to the ground. Wyche ran out to help him as the car continued to scream up the hill.
Watching from her porch on W Street, Linda Greene saw the station wagon going down her street -- not at a great rate of speed, she said -- with its tires flattened and windows busted, trailed by police officers on bicycles and motorcycles. She said she saw the driver "with her head thrown back, laughing."
After making two left turns, police said, Bell returned to Martin Luther King, where Wyche was shocked to see the vehicle barreling down on her.
"I was in the middle of the intersection, down on my knees taking care of my patient," Wyche said. "I looked up and saw her car coming right to me and my patient. My patient ran to the corner to get away, and that shocked me. When he ran, I ran behind him."
Juanitra Fleming and her family were near Maple View Place and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue when "we saw this car coming toward us with a whole bunch of people on it, and they were all falling off it. I could not believe my eyes." She said a girl who appeared to be about 6 or 7 was among those hit and was screaming, "Help me! Help me!"
Fleming, who is pregnant, said her husband, Kevin, shoved their 2-year-old's stroller out of the way. She said he reached into the station wagon's open front passenger window and put the vehicle into park.
Although police officials credited the public for helping, Lanier said that two officers risked their lives by throwing scooters into Bell's path and that this is what ultimately stopped the station wagon.
By then, the injured could be found for blocks. There were three areas where significant multiple injuries had occurred: the intersection of W Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue; a block and a half away at W and 13th streets; and at Maple View and King.
At a special service yesterday at Union Temple Baptist Church, which sponsors Unifest, attendees said they were shocked and numb. A second day of the festival was canceled. Three mental health counselors were on hand in case anyone wanted to talk.
"Whatever happened yesterday, the car didn't drop out of the sky," said the Rev. Willie F. Wilson, who co-pastors the church with his wife, Mary. "It ended here, but it didn't start here. To have little children and adults, to see the horror of people getting run over, it was an alarming event for everyone."
Staff writers Keith L. Alexander, Henri E. Cauvin, Susan Levine, Brigid Schulte, Steve Vogel and Clarence Williams and staff researcher Karl Evanzz contributed to this report.