One by one, 70 bicyclists who had ridden across the country to raise money for the hungry and poor straggled onto the Capitol's West Lawn yesterday afternoon, but there was no joy at the finish line.
Two of the cyclists who had pedaled 3,000 miles through storms and high winds were killed Monday by a truck that attempted to pass them just hours before they ended their two-month trek.
Holly Ehret, a Sonoma, Calif., resident who had turned 21 last week, and Andrew Appleton, 24, of Acton, Mass., were killed instantly on Route 17 in Fauquier County, about 45 miles southwest of Washington. Two other cyclists were injured.
Virginia State Police Trooper C.R. Purkey said a tractor-trailer carrying construction equipment plowed into the bicyclists.
"It was too late for him to pass," Purkey said of the driver, Alvin Lee Harris, 42, of Richmond. "It was too late for him to stop. That's when he hit all four of them. The people on the bicycles went flying."
Harris was charged with reckless driving and operating a vehicle with defective brakes. Purkey said the driver lost control of his tractor-trailer and did not give the bicyclists enough space on the road.
According to the account Harris gave police, a car passed him just as he neared the bicyclists, forcing him to stay in the lane with the bikers and slam on his brakes.
One of the injured, John Chesson, 23, was being treated yesterday at Fairfax Hospital. Like many in the close-knit group, Chesson did not want to discuss the accident. He said from his hospital bed, "I've lost a good friend."
"There is no asking, 'Why?' There is no explanation for why this happened," said the Rev Kathy Goepel, a United Church of Christ minister who rode with the group, which raised $115,000 for Third World aid projects.
As Goepel spoke yesterday of how "scattered individuals" become a family on the trek, several of the men and women, wearing "Love, Sweat and Gears" T-shirts, huddled on the Capitol lawn and cried.
The 1991 trip was to culminate with a rendezvous in Fredericksburg, Va., Monday before a final push into the District. The bikers had planned to avoid Route 17, an artery between Route 66 and Interstate 95, but members of the group said they got lost and local residents directed them to the busy four-lane road.
"Each of us riding has a vision that the world could be better," Goepel said. She urged the group "to turn the tragedy into something positive" by continuing Appleton's and Ehret's vision that each person can make a contribution to helping the world's forgotten and ill.
"It's completely devastating to have something like this happen on the last day of the trip," said Reed Merrill, program coordinator of Bike Aid, as the fund-raising effort is known. "They grow very close to one another during a long trip like this."
The trek began June 16, when four groups of about 20 riders set off from Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland, Ore.
Most of the bicyclists are college students, with a few from the developing countries where the group's money is funneled, including El Salvador, Bolivia, Zimbabwe and Ghana.
By collecting pledges for the miles they rode, the bicylists generated money for programs such as the Takawira Unemployment Benefit, a vocational training center for youths in Masvingo, Zimbabwe.
Bernard Hutire came from Zimbabwe for the trip. "I came to tell these people that each person does make a difference," said the volunteer at the training center.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who met with the group at the Capitol, said: "This was supposed to be a celebration, and we have to make sure it is, because that is what Andrew and Holly meant it to be."