POLL: Should seat belts be required on school buses?
Mary Smith was upstairs when she heard the crash.
It was a deafening noise.
And when she opened her front door to see what had caused it, she was greeted by a wall of dust. After a moment, she realized she was staring at the top of an overturned bus that had been cleaved by a walnut tree and come to rest in a heap of metal and glass a few feet from her home.
"It would have gone into my house if it hadn't been for that tree," she said.
Children began to climb out of the wreckage. She could see three children in her front yard, shrieking, and she dialed 911.
"The kids were just screaming at the top of their voices," she said. "That's going to be with me for the rest of my life."
Smith stepped toward the children and tried to comfort them until help arrived. When the first officers pulled up to the scene, she pointed out one victim she hadn't yet gotten to.
"One little boy was lying almost to my mailbox and I asked the officers to see about him first. They took him to the hospital, but he passed," she said.
Across the street, Smith's neighbors were called to their front doors and windows by the same noise, each startled by the scene.
"We knew something terrible had happened. It's the kind of thing you remember," Ed Wilson said. "It was a shocking thing because, just looking at it, you know it's bad. That was traumatic."
Wilson was on the opposite side of the bus from Smith and couldn't see her, but he could see a steady stream of children extricating themselves from the bus and clambering out through an emergency exit.
"All we could see was the bus on its side and the children coming out of the back hatch of the ceiling," he said. "It was clear they were just terrified. If you're a compassionate person at all, that leaves an imprint."
Dozens of emergency vehicles swept up to the scene from both ends of the street, Wilson said, and the response was so quickly overwhelming he wouldn't have been able to make it down to the victims.
"You would have had to plow your way through all those people who were there to do a job," he said. "It was a total clog out here for a long time."
Another neighbor, Elise Martin, was one of the first people to get to the victims, alongside Smith. She, like a half-dozen others on the street, heard the crash, came to the door and picked up the phone.
"I said, 'Oh Lord, what should I do, what should I do?' The children were bleeding and there was one child lying on the ground. I didn't know yet that child was dead," she said. "I didn't know what to do, but I knew I needed to help them children."
She said the kids were crying for their mothers as she tried to corral them in her front yard. Several were injured, including a girl with braids and an open gash on her head.
"She was totally in shock. She couldn't say anything."
"I asked the children if they knew their mother's numbers. A brother and sister said they did, so I gave them my phone and told them to call her," she said. "I said, 'Tell your mama what happened and tell her you're all right.'"
Martin and her neighbors fetched cups of water and blankets, trying to calm the children as best they could. First responders directed them to keep the children together so they could all be checked for injuries.
But when the last ambulance left and investigators began picking through the scene, the neighbors were left with the long task of processing what they had seen and the news that six of the children on the bus had died from their injuries.
In Smith's yard, a pile of teddy bears, candles and pictures began to pile up. She spoke with a counselor after the crash and has had helpful conversations with family and friends, but the memories remain.
"I'm getting better about it, but it's something that's not going away," she said. "Those kids, they thought they were going home."
Martin said she's grown more wary in grief in the year since she saw children stumbling across her yard.
"It left a permanent mark in my head. Now whenever the bus comes down the street to drop kids off, I always watch to make sure everything is all right. I just don't want anybody to get hurt no more," she said.
"Little kids are little kids, and children shouldn't have to deal with all that mess."
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.