Bus 112 had already picked up the nervous and excited children along Birch Drive for their first day of school Wednesday when neighbors saw 10-year-old Emily Nicole Woodward running to catch the moving vehicle -- as her mother watched from the porch of their townhouse.
Neighbors and students say the driver never saw Nicole, as she was known, and the bus didn't stop. As it slowed to make a right turn, Nicole somehow fell and became caught under a back tire. Witnesses described the frantic and gruesome scene that followed: Neighbors ran to help but found the girl crushed, and her mother ran the 75 feet from the townhouse and kneeled over her daughter, screaming in horror.
"I can still hear her screaming," said Chrystal Morris, 22, who witnessed the accident. "She kept telling her, 'Talk to me, talk to me.' "
School officials said the accident took place shortly after 7 a.m., as the bus made its way to Floyd T. Binns Middle School, where Nicole was starting sixth grade. Authorities said the girl was taken the few blocks to Culpeper Regional Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
Screams from Nicole's mother brought Brian Morris out of his home and into the street. Morris, 22, said he could see a girl wearing a pink shirt and pink backpack pinned under the bus tire. At first, he said, he thought of using a jack to lift the bus off the girl but then instructed the driver to back up so he and several others could pull her free. The sight was so upsetting, he said, that he could not go to work.
"It was horrifying," he said. "It was the craziest thing I've ever seen."
The bus driver, identified by neighbors as Gretchen Yates, has worked for the school system for 25 years and had never been in an accident, said Marla McKenna, a school system spokeswoman.
Eight children already aboard the bus were uninjured. The driver also was not hurt but was so distraught that she was taken to the hospital for evaluation. "She's grief-stricken," McKenna said.
Culpeper police said that their department's accident reconstruction team was working with Virginia State Police to determine the cause and that no charges have been filed.
The accident cast a pall over the first day of the new school year for the system's 6,400 students. McKenna said that grief counselors were on hand to help students and that a letter was being sent home to inform families of the accident.
"It's devastating," McKenna said. "We're a very small, close-knit community. This has touched everyone."
Culpeper is a town of about 10,000, 70 miles southwest of Washington.
Neighbors along the row of townhouses where the girl lived said they were shaken, too, by the fact that the accident occurred within view of children waiting for another bus.
Witnesses said that emergency vehicles arrived within minutes but that there was little they could do for the girl, who had become entangled in the undercarriage of the bus. Yates, the driver, sat stunned behind the wheel, they said.
Nicole was a sweet and calm girl with shoulder-length brown hair, said Megan Newman, 21, who worked at the girl's school last year and whose family lives nearby. Nicole's family had moved into the townhouse only weeks ago from elsewhere in town, Newman said.
She also said that Yates, who has driven the same route for years, was well liked and knew the children by name.
"She's great with kids, and she'd never do anything to hurt a kid," Newman said.
By 1 p.m., a bouquet of three white roses, tied with a pink ribbon, had appeared on the grass near the accident site. A minister who answered the door at the family's home said relatives were too upset to talk.
Yates's daughter said Yates did not want to comment on the accident.
In a statement, School Superintendent David Cox said, "There is nothing more precious than the life of a child, and we are deeply saddened."
The danger of school bus accidents remains fresh in many parents' minds across the state and region after two elementary school children were killed in Arlington County in April when their bus collided with a dump truck.
Experts, however, said that school bus fatalities are rare in the United States. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an average of 135 traffic fatalities involving school buses occurred nationally each year from 1993 to 2003. In the past five years, four children were killed in bus-related accidents in Virginia, said a spokesman for the state's Department of Education.
Tim Hurd, a spokesman for the traffic safety agency, said more children are killed as pedestrians than as passengers, but bus accidents in general are uncommon.
"School buses are the safest way to get to school," he said.
Helderman reported from Leesburg. Staff writer William Branigin and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.