Patuxent High School boys' basketball coach Chris Hodge sat two rows from the front of the bus Monday afternoon on his team's trip to McDonough High School when he caught a glimpse of a minivan speeding straight at them. There was no warning, he said, for the other 42 athletes, managers and coaches from the boys' varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams aboard.
"I saw it coming," Hodge said. "But it all happened so quick. It was a very violent crash."
Panthers junior guard Paul Travers sat two rows from the back, where most of his teammates were either sleeping or listening to music on their headphones. He used his legs to brace himself against sophomore teammate Delonte Janey's seat across the aisle.
"I felt the bus driver hit the brakes real hard, and then there was this loud bang," Travers said. "As soon as we hit the van I knew that whoever was in there would probably be dead."
The driver of the minivan, Carol Kirchman, 55, died at the scene.
All of the students, coaches and bus driver Kerry White were transported to Civista Medical Center in La Plata for examination. Junior varsity coach VaShawne Gross, seated in the first row, and team statistician Ashley Cook, who was across the aisle from Hodge, were taken via ambulance to Civista; the others were taken on a second bus sent to the scene by Charles County.
"I heard Kerry saying 'Hold on!' and, when I turned and looked, the bus and the van were almost like nose to nose," Gross said. "Everything from there was a big blur to me."
All 40 students were released into their parents' custody, some with minor lacerations and bruises. No one on the bus suffered any broken bones. The games were postponed.
"There was a lot of flying glass because of how hard the crash was," said Hodge, who canceled his team's practice yesterday.
According to the Charles County sheriff's office, Kirchman was traveling east on Hawthorne Road when she crossed the center line for an unknown reason and collided head-on with the bus, which was two miles from Pomfret, the destination of the 45-mile trip from Calvert County.
Kirchman was a special education teacher at Lackey High, another school in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference, for the past 12 years and an employee of Charles County Public Schools since 1970.
Brian Stevens, the supervisor of athletics for Calvert County, said it is the first fatal crash involving a school bus in the county's history.
"We travel about 14,000 miles every day on 130 buses in this school system, so the reality is we're lucky we don't have more accidents," Stevens said. "I feel very, very sad that the woman lost her life in the accident. It's a tragedy. Obviously something of this nature doesn't happen very often, and when it does it's a catastrophe.
"But we travel the equivalent of going to California and back twice every day, and eventually your luck runs out and you're going to be involved in something as unusual as this. . . . As awful as it was, it could have been much worse."
Hodge said he believes the guard rail saved the bus from flipping over and falling into the ravine below.
"Kerry White did a marvelous job of trying to avoid the accident, and then of controlling the bus once it had been hit," Stevens said. "He is a veteran driver, and an excellent one."
After assessing the condition of the students, Hodge exited the bus in an attempt to help the woman in the van. Hodge said he was met on the street by an onlooker who had stopped to offer assistance, and that man had already determined Kirchman had no pulse.
"All I could see was her hands," Hodge said. "You couldn't even tell what kind of vehicle it was. It was terrible."
Patuxent Athletic Director Valerie Harrington said 10 of the 40 students on the bus did not report for school yesterday and two others came in late. The 10 who stayed home were contacted by the school to check on their mental and physical health, but most reported only soreness.
Hodge, a vice principal at the school, also stayed home. Travers attended classes and said he spent most of the day answering questions about the accident.
"One of my teachers even had us draw it up on the board because it was all anyone wanted to talk about," Travers said. "I think the players, I think we were still in a daze. I still can't believe it."
Staff writer Michael Amon contributed to this report.