September 11, 1995 12:00 PM

PETE MAYBERRY CAN’T GET THE haunting image out of his mind. “I still see her face,” says the 40-year-old Detroit bus driver. “I have nightmares that we’re both in the water and she’s reaching out her hand to me, but I can’t get her.” The vision tormenting Mayberry is of Deletha Word, who fell—or leaped—to her death from a Detroit bridge early on Aug. 19. The 33-year-old business student was fleeing Martell Welch Jr., 19, a former high school football player whose car she had sideswiped and who, witnesses say, retaliated by savagely beating her. The incident attracted worldwide attention not only because of its brutality, but also because at least 40 people watched the attack yet did nothing to stop it.

Eulogizing Word before hundreds of friends and relatives at the Temple of Faith Baptist Church, former classmate Demetrius Daniels, 30, struggled to find words of comfort, then offered instead a chilling question: “What’s wrong with our society?” Deletha’s mother, Dortha Word, 53, has questions of her own: “I can’t believe all those people stood around and watched,” she says.

Neither could anyone who read the early sensational headlines, which trumpeted an account of a cheering crowd urging on the 6’4″, 270-lb. Welch as he beat and tore off the clothing of the dazed 4’11” Word. City and police officials have subsequently denied that onlookers applauded or egged on the assault. Still, onlookers—many of whom paint Welch as more unrelentingly vicious than do police—have been anguishing over their own inaction.

“I’ll always wonder if I could have saved her,” says Mayberry, who was enjoying an evening out with his date Diane Ford, 39, when his car became caught in traffic on the bridge. He and Ford got out of their car and saw Welch assaulting Word, but they were afraid to intervene. “I’m not proud of how I reacted. But I just keep asking God to forgive me,” says Mayberry. Says Ford, a Colorado Springs casino cashier who was visiting Detroit: “She could have been my daughter, my sister, anyone. Why didn’t I do anything? I should have just let her in the car, but I would have gotten beat up. Still, I wish I would have done something.”

Michael Sandford, 23, who used his car phone to call 911, says he was intimidated by the hulking Welch and the group of youths with him. (Police are investigating his companions’ role in the incident, but so far no charges have been filed.) “I wish I would have done something more,” Sandford says, “but there were too many of them and not enough of us.” Raymont McGore, 20, a dock worker, also felt powerless. “If one person would have spoken up for her, I would have backed them up,” he says.

Psychologists who study mass behavior are not surprised by the crowd’s paralysis. “The more people witnessing the event, the less likely it is that people will do something,” says Lawrence Messé, a psychology professor at Michigan State University. In addition, “the more traumatic and dramatic the event, the more likely that people will have different recollections—the shock throws people off kilter.”

That may partially explain the divergence among accounts offered by police and eyewitnesses. According to police, Word was leaving Belle Isle park, a popular spot with late-night revelers, just after 2 a.m. when her Plymouth Reliant station wagon sideswiped Welch’s Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Without stopping, she drove onto the mile-long bridge with Welch in pursuit. When both cars became caught in traffic, Welch got out of his car “and grabbed the victim through the window, opened the door and severely beat her with his fists,” says Detroit Police Chief Isaiah McKinnon. Police say Welch dragged her from her car, then pounded it with a tire iron. When Welch released her, Word ran to the railing and jumped. She was alive when she hit the water 30 feet below but, unable to swim, apparently drowned.

Witnesses paint an even grislier picture. Mayberry got out of his car to see what was delaying traffic and saw a girl being beaten. “She looked young,” he says. “She didn’t have any clothes on except for a little g-string, and he was yelling and swearing at her the whole time. Crazy stuff.” As onlookers stood in a half-circle, Mayberry says, “he had her by the head, and he was ramming her head on the hood of the car, face first…. He just kept beating her, maybe for 10 minutes…. I’ve never seen a man cuss and beat a woman like that.” Sandford says Welch grabbed Word by the hair and whipped her around as she clawed wildly to steady and free herself. “She just wanted to get ahold of something,” he recalls.

Moments later, Mayberry says, a friend pulled Welch away, but as Word tried to escape, Welch threatened to throw her from the bridge. Fleeing, Word climbed over the bridge railing. “He was yelling, ‘I’m gonna kill you, I’m gonna beat you, bitch,’ ” Mayberry says. “He took a couple more steps toward her and then she just let go. The crowd went, ‘Oh’—like a big moan—and then everybody got quiet.”

Tragically, the two heroes on the bridge that night arrived too late. Construction worker Orlando Brown, 22, and his friend, factory worker Lawrence Walker, 21, had just arrived when they saw the crowd looking over the railing. The two men got out of their car and saw Word struggling in the murky water. “I really didn’t think about it,” says Walker. “I just went in.” Brown jumped too. But Word apparently mistook them for her assailant. “We said, ‘We’re here to help,’ Walker says. “But she didn’t hear us, or she didn’t believe us.” Moments later, Word disappeared. Hours later her body was found downriver.

It may take months to get a full account of how Deletha Word died, but friends and relatives are united in describing her zest for life. Depicted as an “ambitious go-getter” by her classmate Daniels, she was both a full-time student and full-time employee, working toward a bachelor’s degree at Detroit College of Business and cashiering at a local Krogers supermarket. She was also a full-time mother to 13-year-old Daneeka. Word was the eldest child of Dortha, a resale-shop owner, and her husband, Walter, 67, who sells auto parts. When Daneeka told her mother she wanted to be a doctor, Dortha recalls, Deletha encouraged her, saying, “You see how Mommy pushes? You’ve got to push like that.”

But on Belle Isle bridge, Deletha encountered a man whose own dream had just been shattered. Welch, a graduate of Detroit’s St. Martin DePorres High School, wanted to play college football, but he had learned just three weeks before that poor grades would keep him from getting a tryout at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich. Welch has pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree murder.

Among the witnesses to Deletha’s death, many continue to ponder its meaning—and probably will for the rest of their lives. “It’s like nobody cared,” says Orlando Brown. “Somebody should have cared about her.”

THOMAS FIELDS-MEYER

FANNIE WEINSTEIN and MELINDA WILSON in Detroit and BARBARA SANDLER in Chicago

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