Forever Changed by Minutes of Mayhem
Monday, January 7, 2008
The church festival was nearly over, so Viante Butler, 15, and her girlfriends danced in the middle of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue as the band played a final go-go song.
Suddenly, they heard screams. Before Viante could turn, a Volvo station wagon slammed her facedown to the ground, trapping her under the car.
"Keep your face up. Keep it up," the teen thought as she was being dragged. She lifted her head and kept her elbow away from the right tire. As the car raced through one block and down another, Viante glimpsed falling clumps of cotton candy, funnel cakes and stuffed animals.
The pavement shredded the yellow blouse Viante had begged her mother to buy for the event and ripped into the girl's stomach and legs. Viante dwelled on one thought: "Stay alive. Stay alive."
On June 2, at speeds ranging from 30 to 70 mph, Tonya Bell, an Oxon Hill woman high on crack cocaine, continued to drive through the heart of Unifest, the Southeast Washington neighborhood festival. By the time Bell hit Viante, the last victim, she had left a trail of 48 other mangled bodies: men, women and 10 children bleeding on sidewalks and several streets.
Tomorrow, at least 12 victims plan to testify when Bell, who faces 15 to 25 years in prison, is sentenced in D.C. Superior Court.
"I just want to see this woman face to face. I want her to see what she has done to me and my family," said Landover resident Tonya Walker-Allen, whose fiance, daughter, son and 2-year-old grandson were injured in the crash.
Bell's drug use and a horrendous crash forever linked dozens of people -- ages 18 months to 54 years, residents of the District, Maryland, Virginia, Wisconsin and Canada -- to what District authorities call the largest mass-injury criminal case in 30 years. Bell, prosecutors said, mowed down 49 people in about five minutes.
During the past seven months, many of the 21 victims interviewed by The Washington Post said they have undergone multiple surgeries and grappled with physical deformity, frequent nightmares, memory loss, therapy and thousands of dollars in medical bills. Although no one was fatally injured in the crash, at least two of the victims later died, one in a traffic accident. The other victims could not be reached for comment.
Although the streets had been blocked off for the festival, Bell's car was able to strike pedestrians on W Street, near Union Temple Baptist Church, which has hosted the event for the past 22 years, and on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. Police chased Bell but were unable to stop her until the car collided with police motor scooters.
Some victims angrily questioned whether enough officers were on the scene and whether police could have apprehended Bell sooner.
"This would have never happened in Adams Morgan or Georgetown or even on the Mall," said Sharmela Knowles, 28, of Mount Rainier. Knowles had a bruised hip after being struck by the car's side-view mirror.