Sept. 21, 1989, began like any other day.
Delcia Lopez was taking care of her nephew and listening to scanner chatter.
Lopez, a photojournalist who now works for The Monitor, was stringing as a photographer for the Associated Press at the time.
She was 25 when a call she will never forget came over the scanner.
“It came out as a school bus in a caliche pit,” Lopez said. “I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ This was 7:20 or 7:21 in the morning.”
She rushed her nephew to a family member’s house down the street, explained the situation and immediately drove to a scene that is still as fresh in her memory 30 years after one of the most horrific school bus accidents ever to occur in the United States claimed the lives of 21 high school students.
“I remember getting out of my car, I was in shorts, because I slept in shorts and in a T-shirt,” Lopez said. “I took off because I knew it was big.”
Figuring the crash scene would soon be crowded with emergency vehicles, Lopez, who arrived about 10 minutes after the crash, parked farther away from a caliche pit filled with black water where the school bus with 81 passengers had fallen into after being hit by a Dr Pepper truck.
“So I started running,” she said.
That’s when she heard the screams.
“I didn’t know what it was because I didn’t see the pit but I knew because I saw the Dr Pepper truck and I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ The bus was in the pit, but I didn’t know how deep it was,” Lopez said.
She said her legs felt like spaghetti.
“I could hear the screams and could see a lot of people around there,” Lopez said. “Those people were not police officers. There was only one police officer, one.”
Those people were just neighbors and Lopez said they were jumping in as the officer tried to stop them. They didn’t listen, however. Someone needed to save as many of those kids as possible.
When she got to the pit, the young photojournalist was confronted with the chaos of an overturned bus in black water surrounded by floating debris while kids stood on top of it and people jumped in to help.
“And I remember, I just started taking pictures and I was like, Del, just shoot, just shoot,” Lopez said. “And I remember that when I was shooting I could feel the tears just running down and I just kept watching … why isn’t there anybody here? And it was just chaotic.”
After 15 to 20 minutes of taking haunting photos, Lopez finally heard the sirens of first responders arriving.
“I’m standing there. I was shooting as much as I could,” she said. “And I was going crazy because this was overwhelming for me.”
Some of those images have stayed with Lopez.
“I do recall the bodies they were pulling out. They were putting them on a boat. There’s an image I have that will always stay with me,” she said. “It’s a little girl.”
The child is on a boat as emergency personnel conducted CPR on her. She did not survive.
“Another thing that I will always remember is that they were putting the bodies, they were covering them with like a cloth, because it wasn’t plastic. It was cloth,” Lopez said. “And I do remember this little boy … and he had his basketball tennis shoes on and they were sticking up from the cloth. That I will always remember.”
At some point, Lopez left the scene to change and shower. When she got back, the first responders had found a back way into the pit.
“They found a back way so I went around to the back and all the bodies that were there had been recovered,” she said. “They brought a priest and he was blessing them with holy water. That made a lot of images. That will always stay with me.”
When that long, horrible day finally ended, Lopez, who was living with her parents at the time, went home and closed the door to her bedroom.
“I just cried,” Lopez said, as she choked back tears. “That’s the one memory I can’t get rid of. I can imagine the survivors that lost their friends there. If I felt it, and I was not related to them and they were not my friends, I can’t imagine what they went through.”
She hasn’t spoken much about those memories until recently. In fact, Lopez actively avoided the crash scene and when she joined The Monitor in 1991, editors sent other photographers to assignments in that area.
“Photojournalists, well, journalists, ourselves, we are like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Lopez said. “At one point, one day, we’re covering a funeral and the next day we’re covering a political rally. You got to like, get rid of those emotions and spin on a dime and be ready for the next thing.”
One thing Lopez wasn’t ready for, however, was revisiting that caliche pit in Alton — until last week.
“I was expecting to see water,” she said. “But there was no water, and there was a lot of overgrown brush.”
When she first arrived, she began to breakdown, but gained her composure.
“And then I said, ‘I want to walk through the middle of it,’ where it actually happened,” she said. “So I walked over there to the middle of it.”
When she got to middle, she said she felt OK.
“I felt relief,” Lopez said.
The photojournalist was also present for an interview last week of a man who dove into the water to help when something familiar happened.
“And I’m shooting his picture and I start to cry,” Lopez said. “And I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ I’m doing the same thing I did 30 years ago.”