The terrible news came by telephone: Shelly Bussey, a 17-year-old from Brooklyn Park, was one of the Girl Scouts riding in a chartered school bus that careened off a mountain highway in Palm Springs, Calif. Wednesday afternoon, killing seven passengers.
Lisa Young, who lives next door to Shelly's family in the 300 block of Walton Avenue, heard the news Wednesday evening, when Shelly's mother called her.
"I couldn't understand what she was saying: 'Can you watch Jessie? Can you watch Jessie? There's been an accident. I have to go to California,' " Mrs. Young said yesterday, recalling the conversation about Shelly's 7-year-old sister named Jessica.
"When you don't know anything, you think the worst," she said.
Fortunately, the worst didn't happen. Shelly survived.
Yesterday, she was listed in serious condition at Eisenhower Memorial Hospital in Rancho Mirage, six miles from Palm Springs, recovering from surgery to repair her broken nose.
The operation had been postponed once to allow the swelling in her face to go down.
She has severe facial cuts, 48 stitches in her forehead. Her teeth are chipped and broken, the bone under her left eye has fractured. She has at least one more operation to go through.
"The doctor says she's extremely lucky to be alive," Mrs. Young said. "I wonder what she looks like 'cause she's such a pretty girl."
Shelly is a well-liked and responsible girl who is always there for her friends and family, relatives said.
She loves science and dreams of becoming an astronaut, collects teddy bears and listens to rock-and-roll radio stations such as DC 101 and 98 Rock. This fall, she will be a senior at North County High School.
The Girl Scout trip was to be the highlight of the summer, a two-week tour of Southern California called "California Dreamin' " organized by the Spanish Trails Girl Scout Council.
"She was so excited," Mrs. Young said. "I mean, who wouldn't want to be 17 and going to California?"
Shelly left June 21 and was scheduled to return next Tuesday. Then came the accident at 3:21 p.m. Wednesday.
Officer Ralph Landry of the Palm Springs Police Department said that the chartered school bus was heading down Tramway Road, which winds down from Mount San Jacinto and connects with a highway leading into Palm Springs. The bus was perhaps a mile out of town when it ran off the road.
"From then on in, it was disaster time," Officer Landry said.
Helicopters, ambulances and taxi cabs were used to rush the victims to three area hospitals.
Mrs. Young said Shelly remembers the bus careening downhill, the driver struggling with the steering wheel. People were screaming.
" 'The brakes! The brakes! Oh, my God! We have no brakes!' " Mrs. Young said. "[Shelly] was looking out the window and she remembers falling and nothing after that till she got to the hospital."
None of the passengers in the bus wore seat belts, which are not required by California law [or by Maryland law].
Mrs. Young said that Shelly's parents and doctors treating the victims are especially disturbed by that fact.
"If there had been seat belts on the bus, a lot of these girls wouldn't have had the injuries they had," Mrs. Young said.
Shelly's brother, Scott Todd, was visiting relatives when he heard his sister was in the accident.
He remembers being "shocked and upset."
"I didn't know what to expect," he said. "Broke out in tears waiting for information to come in by phone."
He remembers seeing televised news reports of the crash: the bus torn from its chassis, the bleeding bodies on the ground. He remembers thinking:
"That could be Shelly," he said. "Then you find out she didn't die, and it's more or less a miracle."
His parents, Debra and Phillip Todd, were airborne to California within 12 hours of hearing the news.
They caught USAir Flight 3 to Las Vegas, Nev., connected with America West Flight 647 to Ontario, Calif., then caught yet another plane for the final 65 miles to Palm Springs, Calif. and their daughter.
Mrs. Young said that one of her first reactions was to get on a plane heading west so she could be with Shelly, who she said is like a sister to her.
"You hear something like that and your mind starts working and your first thought is: I'm going," she said. "But then you think: No. I'm not. I'm staying. I've got to help them here."
For now, friends and family wait for bulletins from the other side of the continent, phoned in by Shelly's parents. Her brother, Scott, wants to hear his sister's voice, if only for a moment.
"Everybody wants to know how she's doing, to hear from her, not what other people are saying," he said.
That will happen soon enough. Shelly is expected to return to Maryland in three to five days. When she does, her friends and family will be waiting, along with her two dogs, Mickey and Petey, and her two cats, Blackie and Christy. Along Walton Avenue, there will be the joy of having Shelly back home safe and alive.
Said Mrs. Young: "The only thing she keeps saying now is she loves everybody and she wants to come home."