A finish-line banner hung across the street in front of the Chi O house. The dining room was busy. I saw Margaret and Robin at the salad bar, and we talked about a rushee from Tupelo before they left for the walkathon. Soon the lunch crowd tapered off. I think I went to my room. Out on Highway 6 the walkers closed in on the final five miles.
Somewhere during that final stretch the girls decided they could walk more easily on the hardtop, so during the lulls in traffic they edged onto the road. Beth's Maxima, hazards flashing, inched along behind them.
Around 2 o'clock, a state trooper saw the girls from across the highway. He U-turned and ordered them and the Maxima back onto the shoulder. Pulling away, he radioed dispatch to send the first available follow-up trooper, to make sure the girls stayed out of the road. Another trooper 10-4'd that he'd get there as soon as he could.
At the Chi O house, meanwhile, the cooks and the houseboys—our friends, boyfriends, and brothers, who served food and cleaned up in exchange for meals—left for the afternoon. The house settled into the quiet hours when we studied or went to the gym or took naps or called our moms. Mrs. Caldwell put on her sneakers to walk the last couple of miles. She'd already been out to the highway, to deliver water. All was well. The finish-line banner breathed with the breeze.
At 2:25 P.M., 20 girls were still out there, making their way home. Cyndy, Terri, and Mary Schiele walked way out in front of the rest. Mary Pat, Mary Helen, Melissa, Ashley, Evelyn, Shawna, Amy, June, and Katie clustered together in the main group. Behind them were Shannon and Susan, friends from Jackson, and Maggie and Beth, chatting away. At the back of the pack, Hess, Robin, and Snowe walked just ahead of the Maxima's bumper so they could be near Margaret, who'd taken over the driving. Windows down, radio up. They were listening to Dire Straits. "Now that ain't workin', that's the way you do it. You play the guitar on your MTV..."
And then boom—a huge, grinding crash. A few girls turned in time to see a flatbed pickup, towing a two-ton hay baler, plow over the Maxima with the full force of its weight. The Maxima flipped into the girls. The truck flipped into the girls. The hay baler, a massive, spiked, medieval-looking machine, wrenched free of its hitch and barreled through the girls. Heavy chains from the truck whipped through the air like blades.
Sixteen of the 20 girls lay up and down the highway in a debris field of glass, chains, hair, and blood, their arms and legs flayed open, their bones broken and shattered.
The Maxima had landed belly-up in a shallow ditch, crushed against the crumpled front of the flatbed. Nearest the car, only Snowe remained on her feet. She'd been walking right next to Robin and Hess but as the wreck swept past it took them and left her untouched, the way a tornado can demolish a whole house but leave a teacup standing.
For one second, maybe two, Snowe stood there, not comprehending. Then she sprinted to Robin and Hess, who were facedown on the road. Unconscious. She moved on to Margaret, thinking she had to pull her from the car in case it exploded. Unconscious. Margaret lay pinned half in and half out of the car, and all Snowe could do was say, "Hang on, just hang on," and sit beside her in the grass and pray.
Cyndy, Terri, and Mary Schiele had been walking far enough ahead to miss the impact; now they ran back and started flagging down help. A passerby drove on to an antiques store up the road, called 911. Other drivers were pulling over and going from girl to girl to see whose hand could be held, whose hair could be stroked, who could be comforted or calmed as she cried out for her mama and daddy.
A freshman Phi Delt named Todd came upon the scene. He and a date had just driven out to the county line on a beer run, to jump-start the weekend. Not ten minutes earlier the girls had waved at him; now they were scattered up and down the highway like mangled dolls. Todd told his date to stay in the car; he didn't want her seeing this.
Ashley managed to stand despite a gash in her thigh. As she limped toward Todd, she watched him take off his sweater vest and gently place it on a body with no head.
"Is that Beth?" she said.
"Don't look," Todd told her. "Keep walking." He then took off his undershirt and spread it over the lifeless body of a girl in a pink and white T-shirt.
Now came the sirens. Sheriff's deputies, campus police, ambulances from all the surrounding counties. Chi Os who had come to walk the final leg arrived to mayhem, and found themselves holding IV bags for medics and stepping around flesh to grab each other and scream, "What happened?"
At some point, the flatbed's driver—his name was Robert Lee Davis Jr.—had climbed out of his truck to stand on the side of the highway, dazed.
Next: The emergency response