As Deonne Maggette boarded a Greyhound bus in Memphis on Monday, she couldn't stem the flood of memories of the last time she climbed the steps of a bus.
On Friday, she was riding a tour bus headed for a weekend of playing slots in Tunica, Miss., and seeing relatives in nearby Memphis.
The trip was cut short by disaster.
After the bus ran off Interstate Highway 55 early Saturday near Marion, Ark., Maggette was the only one who was able to peel herself from the ground with just scrapes and bruises. Fifteen others were injured, and 14 people--including two she knew well--died.
During the more than nine-hour journey back to Chicago on Monday, Maggette, 42, could only think about how she was forever changed.
"There are some people I will never see again," she said. "They were really good people, down-to-earth people that you could sit back and they were just like family."
As Maggette tries to internalize what happened, she also inevitably wonders why she survived largely unscathed and others didn't.
Her story of what happened is the first detailed account of the crash from someone who survived it.
"I'll never be the same again. It's something that I will never, ever forget," Maggette said from her sister's home in Hammond. "That was a true tragedy to me."
Maggette went on a similar trip to Tunica with Walters Bus Service Inc. eight years ago. She decided to go this year when her friend, Genise Meekins, 50, called her Thursday to say she had paid her $320 fee, which included a private hotel room. The two women--who met through Meekins' husband, who works at the same electric company as Maggette--have been friends for more than 11 years.
Maggette packed her cutest skirts and evening clothes. After a full day of work Friday, another co-worker, Derrick Poole, picked her up from her mother's South Side home and drove them to their pickup spot. Maggette sat in the second-to-last seat on the bus' right side. Poole, 37, sat in a seat ahead on the left side.
Many of the other passengers knew each other from previous outings, and the atmosphere was filled with anticipation. Several women sang the lyrics to the jazz songs that were playing over the bus' music system.
Maggette read a magazine article about Rick James' last days, listened to Darnell Jones and R. Kelly, chatted and dozed off. About 5 a.m., she awoke with a start, saw the bus veer off the road, and then felt her body being thrown to the ground.
"I heard myself take a deep breath in, and then I must have fainted," she recalled.
A few minutes later, she regained consciousness and only then realized what had happened.
"When I woke up, lying on my chest, that was when everything hit me. Because when it was happening, it was like a bad dream," she said. "When I woke back up, it was like, `This is really happening.' It was like, `God, this is really true.'"
It was eerily quiet and so dark she could only make out the outlines of bodies strewn around her. She called the names of her friends, but she heard only silence. Then the quiet voice of a woman broke through the hush. The woman kept repeating that she couldn't breathe.
Maggette pulled herself from the ground, even though she felt that gravity was pulling against her weight 10 times more than normal. She heard a man--another motorist who had stopped--ask if there was anyone alive. Maggette called him over, and he carried her up to the road because she had taken her shoes off during the bus ride.
"Thank God. Thank God someone's alive," Maggette remembered another woman the man had helped saying. They clasped hands and started praying as flashing ambulances and firetrucks began to arrive.
An investigator from the Arkansas State Police visited Maggette in a hospital in West Memphis. She asked him about her friends, Meekins and Poole. He told her he had visited all the survivors in the hospitals, and that their names weren't among them.
Meekins, a former teacher, and Poole, an electrician who was going through a divorce and hoped to enjoy himself in Tunica with a weekend vacation, were among the 14 people killed.
"I cried," Maggette said. "I don't have some of my friends anymore."
Asked if she will ever make peace with what happened, she replied, "It's hard to say. I'm still trying to figure that out."