One moment Debra Jean Crist is eating a piece of Danish pastry. The next moment she is weeping into it. "I'm sorry," she says. "Three months later, it's still so hard to even talk about it."

But she has decided she wants to have breakfast with a columnist and tell him what happened on theafternoon of April 29. Maybe it will help the police. Maybe it will prevent the same thing from happening to someone else. Most of all, maybe it will mend the spirits of a 20-year-old woman who has lived here all her life and who now says she has given up on Washington.

Debra was sexually fondled and punched by a man while riding a nearly full R-6 Metrobus through Northeast Washington toward her home in Prince George's County.

The man, who was of average build and about 19 years old, approached Debra, who is short and thin, as she was standing about halfway back in the aisle of the bus. "I'm sure he was drunk," Debra says. She remembers watching him weave his way through the rush-hour commuters. She remembers reminding herself to hold onto her pocketbook.

Suddenly, wordlessly, the man put his hand on her. She slapped him and yelled, "What right do you have to touch me?" The man responded by punching her in the cheek.

The bus driver did not stop the bus when the commotion began. Neither did he make any immediate effort to intervene.

None of the passengers did,either.

Finally, when the driver curbed the bus at the next regular stop about a minute after the episode, a male passenger grabbed Debra's assailant and escorted him off the bus by the scruff of the neck. At that point, the bus driver came back to investigate. But no one got the assailant's name, or held him for the police. And only after the man was off the bus did the other passengers ask Debra if she was all right.

Debra was only bruised by the man's punch and did not require medical attention. But in the months since -- through a dozen sessions with police, through daily repeat rides on the R-6 to and from her part-time job as a bookkeeper-- Debra Jean Crist has suffered severe emotional distress.

"I have trouble sleeping. I have trouble eating. Every day, when I get on that bus, I'm scared to death," she said.

Roy Green, Debra's attorney, said he has "served a letter on Metro demanding compensation. We don't expect settlement without a suit, however. I contemplate filing it sometime in the next 30 days."

But dollars won't right the huge wrongs in this case.

Have we become immune to the plights of those in public places?

Have our bus drivers becomezombies -- eyes always straight ahead, carrying people who might as well be cattle, for all they care?

Too dangerous to "get involved," you say? Nonsense. Anyone on that bus could have seen that 50 outraged passengers vs. one assailant wouldn't have left the latter much of a chance.

Nor should the men on the bus shoulder the blame for not leaping to Debra's aid. About 25 female passengers witnessed the very kind of assault that women always say they fear. If watching it unfold a few feet away wasn't enough to spur them into action, what would?

I'm not suggesting that a free-for-all on the bus would have achieved anything. It certainly wouldn't have saved Debra from a black eye or a bad case of depression.

I just can't imagine a bus driver who would have let a drunk aboard with impunity, or who wouldn't have stopped the instant the trouble began. Neither can I imagine passengers who wouldn't at least shout at the assailant to cut it out. Perhaps they were too engrossed in the crossword puzzle.

Still, the real shame of the episode may be its effect on Debra's attitude. As soon as she finishes her advanced accounting training at Benjamin Franklin University, she says she'll never come downtown again.

"It's a shame, too," Debra said. "The good jobs are all downtown. I thought I had a good chance, too. But I can't do it."

Some of us hope you'll reconsider, Debra. The town's not that terrible. Or is it?