Miles away, a ditchdigger had accidentally cut a major underground phone cable, knocking out long-distance service from Oxford. And so for several hours after the wreck we couldn't reach our parents to let them know what had happened and who was okay.

Maggie's parents, who owned a lumber company, got a call over their two-way radio. Ole Miss set up an emergency line and the chancellor, Gerald Turner, began phoning the families of the injured and dead. TV stations and newspapers picked up chatter on their police scanners, and as parents heard the early reports—Ole Miss...accident...Chi O—they dropped what they were doing and drove to Oxford as fast as they dared.

Every available doctor and nurse in town reported to the hospital. In the ER, they tagged the injured Disaster Victim 1, Disaster Victim 2, and so on. The girls who were conscious sped the identifications along by calling out their names and their fathers' work numbers.

Mrs. Caldwell arrived. She'd gone out to Highway 6, but troopers sent her to the hospital instead. Holding the hand of a Chi O chapter adviser, she was led into the morgue to formally put names to the two bodies Todd had covered with his clothes. She'd seen Beth on the highway and did not want to see her that way again. Her hands trembled as the drawer was opened. "That's Beth," she managed to say.

In the second drawer she could identify the girl with the unrecognizable face only by her petite figure and pink and white T-shirt. Mrs. Caldwell had just seen that shirt, had just seen her while delivering water—the darling little freshman from Atlanta with the curly hair and the heart-shaped face. "Mary Pat," she said, holding on to the adviser, feeling like her legs might give way.

Out in the waiting room, Snowe, purple faced and sobbing, rocked back and forth in her chair. Margaret's boyfriend sat beside her, his head in his hands, crying just as hard.

Choppers came to airlift Margaret, Robin, and Hess, all of whom had catastrophic head and internal injuries and hadn't regained consciousness. By phone, Chancellor Turner advised Robin's parents to go straight to the trauma center in Memphis. On the two-hour drive from Tupelo, they prayed for her to still be alive, just please be alive, when they got there. She was not.

When Margaret's father and stepmother reached the hospital, someone met them at the door and said, "Robin's gone," and when they heard that, they knew Margaret would die, too.

By sundown, some Chi Os had packed up and gone home. Most, though, stayed, and spent the night crowded into each other's rooms or camped on the chapter room floor. I went to my room, preferring to be alone, and at some point managed to sleep. The next morning I woke to a redbird flying into my window, attacking its own reflection again and again. Then I got up and went to Duvall's, on the square, and bought a funeral dress.

The dining hall and chapter room had become the Chi O nerve center. We crowded onto the overstuffed sofas and chairs as CNN replayed images of the flipped Maxima, the ambulances, the smiling Chi O portraits of Mary Pat and Beth and Robin. When someone came in and told us Margaret had died at 9:45 A.M., we sobbed in unison; we were still crying less than an hour later when they came back and said Hess was dead, too.

I'd never seen so many people cry so violently. A new flower arrangement would arrive, someone would read the card aloud, and we would cry. We heard that flowers were now coming from strangers as far away as California, and we cried. We learned that hundreds of our classmates were lining up for an emergency blood drive at the student union, and we cried. We heard that the Mississippi State Senate had adjourned in our honor, and we cried. A pharmacology professor told his morning students, "Regardless of how you feel about religion, I ask your indulgence," then led them in impromptu prayer, and that made us cry, too.

The university had planned a noon memorial service, so we went to our rooms and rolled our hair and put on our pantyhose and the drop-waist linen dresses and floral prints we usually wore to church. A subdued silence had fallen. Twenty-four hours earlier we'd been talking and laughing on Highway 6; we thought the sun would always shine on our lives. Now we were driving across campus in a somber caravan of burning headlights. I remember a student standing on the sidewalk holding her books with one arm. In the instant that we passed, I saw her suddenly realize who we were; her mouth dropped open, and her free hand reflexively went to her heart.

We filed into the coliseum holding hands. Seeing the 3,000 people assembled there—a third of the Ole Miss student body plus faculty, townspeople, parents, clergy, the chancellor, the governor, our adorable houseboys in their Sunday suits—some of us cried until we could hardly breathe. And others, like me, stayed dry eyed and numb.

Next: The wreck's lasting effects on the Chi Omega women, 25 years later


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