ROMULUS, MICH., AUG. 17 -- All that remained of Northwest Airlines Flight 255 today were charred chunks of fuselage in an I-94 underpass and yellow body bags on a hillside.

The rest of the big McDonnell Douglas MD80 had broken like a child's fragile toy, scattering debris over a half mile or more.

Delilah Schults, 17, came running from her house on Middle Belt Road when an explosion shook the walls and electricity went out. "The whole place was on fire," she recalled this afternoon. "It was nothing but fire all the way up the road."

One large piece of metal hit a four-wheel-drive Jeep about a 100 yards from where she stood, crushing it like a tin can. "My brother saw someone waving inside," she said. "I saw a lady screaming on top of the viaduct. She was saying, 'Someone help us. Someone help us.' I don't know what happened to her."

Few airline tragedies are such public spectacles as the crash of Flight 255; few touch more people so directly.

The airliner, bound for Phoenix from Detroit's Metropolitan Airport with 144 passengers and at least eight airline employes, took off from runway 3-Center North. As it climbed, eyewitnesses said flames emerged from the rear of the aircraft. It rolled precariously, losing power.

One wing apparently hit a light pole on a National car-rental lot about 500 yards beyond the runway. Then the other struck the nearby Avis car-rental building, gouging a ragged swath across the roof.

The plane became a ball of fire and rammed a railroad trestle and two interstate overpasses. Helicopter-borne rescue workers said later that the ground "turned into a field of fire." Baggage, plane parts and bodies scattered for hundreds of yards.

"It looked like an atomic bomb had been dropped. There was a big mushroom cloud," said Avis night manager Jim Fontana, who escaped unhurt with several customers.

Hundreds saw the flames from I-94, a busy highway that links Detroit with Chicago. Six people in passing autos were treated for injuries after the crash. At least two people on the ground were believed to be dead.

Some were luckier.

Ahbab Ahmed and his family were driving to the airport. "We saw this big fire over our car," he said. "It was all over the sky. Everybody was scared. I didn't know what to do, so I just drove faster and got out of there."

"There were big hunks of burning metal on the road. It was a fiery mess," said Gloria Stevens, 23, who had dropped a friend at the airport and was returning home. "It's something that will stay in my mind forever. It just won't go away." There were dozens of such tales of near-scrapes with tragedy today. Some came from people who missed the flight or had decided at the last moment to delay leaving Detroit for a day or two.

But they did little to obscure what happened. Flight 255 is a popular one offering low-cost fares and often leaves full, or nearly so, on Sunday nights.

This Sunday night, its passengers were typical -- vacationing families, businessmen off to make a buck, older people visiting relatives, young lovers heading for their rendezvous.

About 10 of Sunday's passengers worked for General Motors and were going to a company facility in Phoenix; one was a professional basketball player, Nick Vanos, a husky young center for the Phoenix Suns who had been visiting a friend in Michigan.

Sharmilla Biswas, a student at Wayne State University, took her husband, Sam, an accountant who planned to spend the week working for clients in Arizona, to the airport, then drove to her in-laws' home where she casually flipped on a television set. The screen was full of flames.

"The last thing he told me was, I'll see you on Friday," she said.

Biswas, 27, immediately drove back to the airport where she spent the next 12 hours, hoping beyond hope that somehow her husband had survived. Officials finally told her he had not, but she said she was frustrated that no one would let her see his body or visit the wreckage site.

Distraught, she spent this morning wandering aimlessly from the edge of the crash site to a makeshift morgue to the airline terminal. "I knew he was dead from the beginning, but I'd just feel better if I saw him once more," she said, barely holding back tears.

As families gathered in airport lounges and nearby hotels, officials indicated that only about a dozen bodies are easily identifiable. Those and the remains of others have been placed in the temporary morgue at Nomad's hangar, a short distance from the crash site.

Seven people were arrested on charges of pilfering scraps of the plane or victims' belongings, Wayne County sheriff's deputies said.

Flags were lowered to half staff. Clergymen were called to meet with relatives of the dead.

"You touch them, hold them, comfort them, love them," said the Rev. Larry Sharpless, a Presbyterian. "Even being silent helps. They know there are no answers to something like this. In an emotional time, you don't want logic, you want empathy . . . . I've heard some say, 'At least we're in this together . . . . ' "

Even then, many were growing restless by the end of the day, he said. "They're pacing the floor. They're tired of the coffee and of waiting. They want to get on with whatever is next," he said.

But in every great tragedy, there seems to be one ray of hope, a miracle of survival. Here, the miracle is a small, blond girl, still not positively identified.

Rescue workers heard her screams from a mass of metal in the fiery moments after the crash. Firemen shot water on the flames, then pulled a chunk of mangled metal from a pile of smoldering debris, apparently caused when part of the plane collided with a vehicle on Middle Belt Road.

"It was a very grisly sight. Five or six other bodies were lying there. But she was alive, huddled under the body of an older woman, perhaps her mother," said Tom Buckles, operations director for Taylor Ambulance Service.

"You couldn't tell if she was a passenger on the plane or if she'd been on the ground," he continued. "It was quite a chaotic scene. There really wasn't much of a plane left. It was just a bunch of parts spread out for a half mile."

{Knight Ridder reported that Dr. John Girardot, 26, an intern, was driving home to Romulus on I-94 and followed the flames to help rescue workers. When he reached the child, he said, she was strapped in an airline seat and buried under several suitcases.

{Hospital officials described the child as having a chipped front tooth, lavender-pink fingernail polish and long, braided hair. Margaret Cichan of Philadelphia said she had applied lavender-pink polish that day to the fingers of her blond, braided granddaughter, Cecilia, who had showed off the tooth she chipped a few months ago.

{Cecilia, 4, had been traveling with her mother, father and brother. Her grandfather, Anthony, was en route from Philadelphia tonight to see the child.}

The girl, in critical condition with burns on her legs, arms and face and a broken leg and collarbone, was flown by medical helicopter to the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor.