From her window seat in a school bus packed with laughing classmates, LaWanda Jefferson spotted a passing orange car seconds before she felt herself catapulted sideways.
"The bus went to the side, and I guess it went over," she said. "When it was falling ... I was just glad when it hit the ground."
It struck the ground nose-first, about 30 feet below the I-565 overpass.
Two teenage girls died in the wreckage; a third died later at a hospital.
"They were falling on each other. People were screaming, yelling, crying," said Jefferson, 16, who suffered fractures to her left arm and cuts and bruises to her face.
More than 30 Lee High School students and the bus driver were taken to Huntsville Hospital, which became a hectic trauma center Monday with emergency physicians and staff called in to help as ambulances brought in the severely injured.
Five people, including the bus driver, had undergone surgery, a hospital spokeswoman said.
Police said the bus, taking students to classes at a downtown tech center, swerved on the overpass, plowed through a concrete barrier and plunged to the street below.
Police Chief Rex Reynolds said an orange Toyota Celica driven by another Lee High student apparently came close to or struck the bus, causing it to swerve. He declined to say whether charges would be filed.
Students on the bus, which was not equipped with seat belts, were screaming when rescue workers arrived. "They were thrown all over the bus," said Huntsville Fire Chief Dusty Underwood.
Some had to be extracted from the crumpled front of the bus, he said.
The police chief identified the high school students who died at the scene as Christina Collier, 18, and Nicole Ford, 17. A third, Tanesha Hill, 17, died at the hospital from her injuries, Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers said.
Some parents were called to the scene by wailing children on cell phones. Many were angered that police held them back or had no information. At the hospital, some collapsed in tears amid more confusion.
Hospital officials said the horror of the wreck was compounded by the inability of hospital staff to identify some of the more severely injured students who were unable to talk and had no identification on them.
The police chief said the driver and a passenger in the Celica went to a hospital following the crash, but he was not aware if they were treated for injuries. He said the driver was interviewed by police.
The bus driver was in critical condition, said Brooke Thorington, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.
"This is a heartbreaking tragedy," said Gov. Bob Riley in a statement in Montgomery.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which was to investigate the wreck, has said that school buses are designed to protect occupants without the use of seat belts. A new design uses strong, well-padded, high-backed seats, closely spaced together, the NTSB has said.