Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect spelling of attorney David Benowitz’s name.
The three ushers walked out of New Samaritan Baptist Church in Northeast Washington on Thursday night after their meeting ended and stepped into the crosswalk on Florida Avenue.
Alice Niblett and Jessie Thaxton heard the roar of an approaching sport-utility vehicle and retreated to the curb. But Ruby Whitfield, 71, kept walking. She never saw her friends motioning for her to stop. It happened too fast.
D.C. police said a silver Mercury Mountaineer speeding about 15 mph over the limit and driven by a suspected drunk driver plowed into Whitfield and kept going, dragging her 86 feet down the pavement. The retired cafeteria worker at Sidwell Friends School, where she spent 44 years serving lunch to students before leaving in 2008, died at a hospital half an hour later.
Whitfield was beloved at Sidwell’s main campus on Wisconsin Avenue, where she doled out not just a hot lunch but also wisdom to countless students and teachers in the middle and upper schools. She and Chelsea Clinton were often seen talking, and a tribute to Whitfield posted on the school’s Web site says she was invited to Clinton’s graduation party in 1997.
“I was so sad to hear of Ruby’s tragic death,” Clinton said. “She always had a smile and hug ready at Sidwell, and I know I am only one of countless students whose days she brightened over her years as part of the Sidwell community.”
Kay O’Neill, a retired Sidwell teacher who wrote the Web tribute, quoted Whitfield saying of Clinton: “I loved that child. She’d seek me out at school and say, ‘Hug me!’ ”
In an interview, O’Neill, 80, said Whitfield “would always tell you to pray. . . . She told us, ‘Bring your troubles not to Ruby but to God.’ Then she would say, ‘But I’m here anytime you need me.’ ”
D.C. police arrested Joel R. Bromwell, 32, of Annapolis about 10 blocks from the crash site. He is charged with voluntary manslaughter, and court documents say he failed sobriety tests, including jumbling the alphabet on his first two tries. The documents say his blood alcohol content was measured at 0.11 percent; the legal limit in the District is .08.
A D.C. Superior Court judge on Friday ordered Bromwell detained until a preliminary hearing Monday. His attorney, David Benowitz, declined to comment.
Whitfield was born in Columbus, Miss., and moved to Washington when she was a child. She married Thomas Whitfield, now a retired printer, and moved to her house, which is near the crash site, in 1972. The couple had one daughter, Tasyha Whitfield, who is 42. She also is survived by her 21-year-old granddaughter, Symone.
A friend persuaded her in 1963 to work at the Sidwell cafeteria. The meals were family-style, O’Neill said, with a teacher at the head of each table. It was tasty and fresh cafeteria fare — including chunks of creamed chicken, fresh rolls with strawberry jam and beef stew with cornbread.
“She was known to everybody, if you ate lunch,” O’Neill joked. “And she was a friend to everybody. If she knew you were late, she would put something special aside for you.”
O’Neill said Clinton “was drawn to people who were kind and giving,” and Whitfield was such a person. “Chelsea went into the dining room on her free time, to chat with Ruby, or if she needed something more to eat,” O’Neill said.
Tasyha Whitfield said her mother constantly talked about what the kids could eat, couldn’t eat and tried to sneak when no one was looking. “She was always giving them hugs, and they always gave her gifts,” the daughter said. “She loved her children, and they loved her.”
Whitfield was more than a cafeteria worker — “she was their mom, their guardian. She watched out for them,” she said.
Whitfield’s friends at 3,000-member New Samaritan Baptist knew she had worked at Sidwell but didn’t know how much she was loved there. The usher meeting Thursday was routine, discussing assignments and new directives from the pastor.
The meeting broke up shortly after 8 p.m., and Whitfield, Thaxton and Niblett waited behind in a side office until the crowd had cleared. About 8:15 p.m., they headed outside, onto the sidewalk in front of the church near Gallaudet University, and stepped into the street and onto a painted white crosswalk, according to her friends and the police.
Both Niblett and Thaxton said they heard the vehicle coming and stepped back, trying in vain to get Whitfield’s attention. “The car came out of nowhere,” said Thaxton, 68. “Alice and I held back, or it probably would have hit us, too. I didn’t see the hit. I just heard the impact.”
“The driver just never stopped,” Thaxton said.
Police said in the court charging documents that the driver stopped at a red light a block away, at 12th Street and Florida Avenue NE. Another motorist confronted him, the documents say, but the man drove off. Police said he was wearing ear buds and talking on a cellphone.
Police said they found the vehicle about 10 blocks from the church — empty, dented and with blood on the wheel well — parked around the corner from where an acquaintance of the driver lived. Police said they found the suspect inside.
Police said in court documents that he admitted to being the driver and said he saw people on Florida Avenue “and applied his brakes.” He told police that he “felt a bump and knew that something had struck his vehicle.” He told police he panicked when confronted by the witness. He also said he had been at a nearby bar and drank two rum and Cokes over two hours, the documents said.
Police said in the report that there was no evidence that the vehicle braked, and they estimated he was going faster than 40 mph. The speed limit on that stretch of road is 25 mph.
Thaxton and Niblett said they walked to where Whitfield lay injured but couldn’t bring themselves to get too close. They headed back to the crash site; her shoes and hat were lying in the crosswalk.
Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.