They came this morning like every other, to park on shopping center asphalt and then huddle in groups, waiting to board buses bound for livelihoods 60 miles away. But today the life style they had chosen on Washington's newest commuter frontier came into question -- tragedy was on their minds.
Ten died at the scene and an 11th, Cynthia Zeman, 21, of Fredericksburg, died tonight in a Washington hospital. Thirteen were injured. They were fellow commuters who, like thousands of others in this area, live here and work there and ride a bus between.
"Anybody who runs this road back and forth every day knows the odds are against you the longer you do it," said Jim Staples, waiting for the same hour-long ride to the Pentagon he has made for 20 years. "If nothing else, this will increase awareness that you take a lot of chances every day."
Staples, like the droves of others who have moved to this growing city in the country to escape the high cost of and cramped space of Washington living, called it simply "The Accident." A rush-hour bus, carrying 23 dozing passengers along a familiar stretch of interstate yesterday never made it home. It veered into a guardrail at an estimated 60 miles an hour, hit a bridge abutment and hurtled nose-first into a creek bed 40 feet below.
"I don't remember much," said Michael Heilman, the only passenger who would survive the crash well enough to walk out of a hospital later that night. w"I guess I passed out. The next thing I knew, people were screaming and crying, but I couldn't figure out what was going on. I was very disoriented."
The sorrow was felt today all over Fredericksburg, from the battered old business district along Caroline Street to the shiny plastic eateries on Rte. 1. People here understand commuters.
During the last 10 years, said Fredericksburg City Manager John Nolan, the population in neighboring Spotsylvania County has grown 109 percent to 34,336, Stafford 63 percent to 40,168. At least 50 percent of the people who now live there are what they call "incomers" hereabouts, people who have moved into the area within the last five years.
"It's a very beautiful place to live," said Nolan of his home. "As far as Washington is concerned, it's the last frontier. If you want to live in the D.C. area, you buy a house here for $10,000 or $20,000 less and then drive to work every morning. We have open space, rural living and friendly people, and Washington's not very far away."
For Heilman, a 30-year-old civilian engineer employed in Alexandria by the Army, Fredericksburg was "really the only alternative." For $78,000 he got four bedrooms and an acre of land. "We looked in Woodbridge and Dale City," says his wife Deloris, "but the prices were too high. We have trees and the outdoors and not a lot of crowding. We really enjoy our home and I figure it would have cost us probably $100,000 to live in the suburbs of Washington with all the crowds."
There are three bus lines that provide daily commuter service from Fredericksburg to Northern Virginia and Washington. To ride the D&J company bus, which crashed last night, commuters here pay $17.50 per week.
"You can't run a car for $17.50 a week, I don't care what you drive," said Jim Adams, whose wife Judith was among the passengers plunged into the creek last night.
This morning, while his 40-year-old wife lay in intensive care at Potomac Hospital in Woodbridge, Jim Adams sat in the hospital cafeteria trying to swallow an egg salad sandwich and the events of the past 18 hours.
"She was asleep when it happened. That's what people mostly do on that bus," said Adams, a Fairfax County fireman who has been on injury leave since September. Until then, he and his wife, who works as a stenographer-typist for the Army, used to make the 140-mile round trip to work together in the family. After his injury, Adams said his wife opted for the bus.
Jim and Judith Adams also are expatriates from Northern Virginia. Four and a half years ago they sold the house in Prince William County and moved to a farm 25 miles south-west of Fredericksburg with their three children. "We wanted to get away from the hassle up there, all the sick people. We wanted to get the kids away from that environment."
Now they own a farm with cows, chickens and homegrown food in the freezer. With that new lifestyle, however, has come a daily commute of over two hours.
"That's our sacrifice for having a home in the country," said Adams, who moved here at the same time fellow firefighter and his best friend, Wayne Mason bought his own farm in Spotsylvania. Incredibly, Mason was riding in a car directly behind the bus when it crashed and flipped over the bridge.
"He had no idea my wife was on that bus. He just climbed down and started pulling people out. When my wife called out his name, he almost had a heart attack," said Adams.
In the corridors and offices throughout the huge suburban Washington office building where all but three of the bus riders worked for the Army Materiel Development and Readiness Command, the talk was of lost friends and unexpected death.
A growing crowd of workers gathered in the main lobby of the building at 5001 Eisenhower Ave. in southern Alexandria to catch a glimpse of a hastily prepared poster with the names and photographs of victims of one of Virginia's worse accidents in recent history. "Why did they have to lose it on a bridge over a chasm . . . of all places to have an accident," said a woman as she stared at the memorial.
If there was one victim that almost everyone seemed to remember, it was Frederick Bennett, a lithographer from Milford who has worked for DARCOM, as the agency is known, for 39 years.
Arnold Byers had been Bennett's "buddy" for more than 30 years. "He worked at the machine right next to mine. I walked in here this morning, looked over at his machine and just broke into tears. He walked out of here last night at 3:45 p.m. I said 'I'll see you in the morning Fred,' and that was it."