Safe in the lobby of her apartment house and warm in her turquoise robe, Madeline Lyle shuffled on slipper-clad feet toward the elevator, pausing in front of police Sgt. Gregory Slaughter. "It certainly is a tragedy," Lyle said. "Terrible. I'm just glad I wasn't on it."
The Starline Tours bus that plunged off a mountain road in the Sierra Nevada was bringing 28 residents of the Santa Monica Christian Towers, where Lyle lives, home from an outing to Reno, Nev.
Residents of the Towers, required to be at least 62 years of age, milled around the lobby this evening, waiting to hear their friends' fates. Slaughter manned a hotline that connected the retirement home to the Santa Monica Police Department headquarters and, in turn, to the California Highway Patrol.
From the patrol came back word on who was injured and who was dead.
Most of the residents first heard what happened when they arrived home to a street full of TV trucks and radio news cars. "We've been out. We walked in on this," said 75-year-old Lois Coates.
Coates' attention was suddenly grabbed by the Rev. Charles Elswick. "Vivian Guthrie was on the bus," Elswick said.
"Vivian? Oh, my God," said Coates.
"She's alive," assured Elswick, pastor of the First Christian Church located next door to the retirement home. The church built the modern-looking 13-story, 163-unit building two decades ago, but no longer runs it.
Cyril Gail, a retired dentist and president of the board that administers the home, said there is a waiting list of 1,000. In upscale Santa Monica, the Towers charges only $175 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, including utilities.
"Nobody seems to know what happened," Gail, 84, said. "The television said the driver was going too fast, but I don't know." On the trip to Reno, "the bus did have motor trouble," he said. "They had to wait for an hour before it got going again.
"It's a terrible thing," he said. "We all feel part of a family here."
"These people are just in a state of shock," Elswick said. He looked around the room and shook his head. "There's going to be a lot of pain to work through here." Staff writer Jay Mathews contributed to this report.