Cuddling her bruised and swollen 4-year-old daughter, Yolanda Arizmendi recounted yesterday how she heard her child call out Sunday just before the child plunged nearly 20 feet from an upper-level landing at Springfield Mall into the food court.

Arizmendi said her daughter, Marina, who was standing just to the left of an escalator, announced that she was "going down" just as she was turning to look for Marina's twin sister, Sara.

"Then I heard her yell, 'Mommy!' " said Arizmendi, 31, who jerked back around toward Marina. "But there was nothing there. I didn't see any railing or anything. I saw her let go."

According to her mother, Marina, lured perhaps by a metal strip alongside the escalator that she mistook for a slide, went through a space between a support column and the handrail of the escalator where a piece of protective plastic shield was supposed to be. Marina fell straight down, landing on her stomach with her left arm cushioning her fall, her mother said.

While a stranger tended to Sara, Arizmendi raced down the escalator to Marina's side. But she said people kept her from touching her daughter, who was lying in a puddle of blood, in an effort to keep the screaming child still.

"Oh God, it was a nightmare," said Arizmendi, her eyes tearing at the thought of it. "They didn't let me near her."

Marina was taken by helicopter to Fairfax Hospital, where she was treated for a broken left arm and given several stitches in her "busted" chin, her mother said. An X-ray at the hospital detected one of her teeth in her stomach, and several other teeth are chipped, she said.

According to an expert on children's injuries, the elasticity of children's bones may have helped the girl escape more severe injury. Children's bones "can withstand a lot of trauma," said Jorge Alonso, chief of orthopedic trauma at Children's Hospital at the University of Alabama in Birmingham.

A doctor at Fairfax Hospital confirmed what Arizmendi already knew: Marina was lucky. But a puffy-faced Marina didn't feel so lucky yesterday at her home on Bolling Air Force Base, where her father Jose, a gunnery sergeant, is stationed.

Marina cried out in pain as several of her four siblings tried to comfort her. Marina, her left arm in a sling, her left eye swollen shut, didn't want to talk about what happened, but her twin was more than happy to speak on "Nina's" behalf.

"Nina slide down the rail," Sara said. "It looked like she got a boo-boo."

Arizmendi said a mall official told her some children had taken the plastic shield, which is in front of the metal strip, and that it had not yet been replaced.

Jose Arizmendi questioned the mall's safety standards. "I think it's very sorry for a place that's open to the public. It's hard with one child, it's even harder for someone who has twins," he said. "I've seen that hole before, two months ago. I said, 'That's very dangerous.' "

Mall personnel reached yesterday said that only Dave Pierson, the mall manager, could comment on what happened. Pierson was not available for comment. The opening next to the escalator had been filled yesterday with a piece of clear plastic.

Marina's mother said she was angry, but added she was having trouble fixing the blame for what happened. She alternately chastised herself, then the mall.

"I mean, when you go to the mall you don't think accidents are going to happen. So I guess in a way I do blame the mall," she said. "But I blame myself. Maybe I should have stuck them in a stroller or something."

Arizmendi also was feeling guilty for going to the mall at all, for taking her girls to the bathroom while Jose went to pick up some eyeglasses, even for buying some french fries.

Food was a sore subject for Marina yesterday, who is on a liquid and soft-food diet for several days, her mother said. And eating and watching cartoons are her daughter's favorite things in life, she said.

No sooner had Marina arrived home from the hospital yesterday when she immediately placed her order: Spaghetti-Os.