College of Charleston student Emily J. Salisbury was running late for her first class Tuesday morning.
As she moved east with the traffic on Calhoun Street, an ambulance that had just left a downtown hospital was dispatched to an emergency call. It, too, took Calhoun Street going east.
Salisbury tried to steer her Pontiac Grand Prix sedan onto Pitt Street at 9:15 a.m., just as the ambulance drove into the opposing lane to pass traffic, the Charleston County Sheriff's Office said. Salisbury's car was directly in its path.
The front of the ambulance slammed into the Pontiac's front and rear doors on the driver's side. The impact sent the ambulance and car sliding into parked vehicles on the north side of Calhoun Street.
Salisbury, 22, died of head injuries less than an hour later at Medical University Hospital, County Coroner Rae Wooten said.
Molly Prochazka, 30, a student who was walking to a morning calculus class, described the crash as "the worst accident I've ever seen."
"The ambulance was going really fast," she said. "I think it was en route to get somebody."
Sheriff Al Cannon said the ambulance normally is assigned to a station on S.C. Highway 174 on Edisto
Island but had just dropped off a patient downtown.
Then a call went out for an unconscious patient on Laurens Street downtown, Cannon said. Since the ambulance was the closest to the new call, dispatchers sent it there.
The sheriff said his investigators had not determined the ambulance's speed at the time of the crash. Two paramedics inside were not badly hurt and did not need to go to a hospital.
Salisbury was a senior at the College of Charleston and would have received a bachelor of science degree in May, Dean of Students Jeri Cabot said.
She frequently attended the Reflections church service at John Wesley United Methodist Church with friends in Charleston.
Salisbury was planning to move home to Charleston, W.Va., for a year and then wanted to go to graduate school, her roommate, Kelly Lane King, said.
"She really wanted to go home to be with her family for a little bit," King said.
Salisbury is survived by her parents and a younger brother who attends West Virginia University, King said.
Salisbury was a biology major and English minor. She had spent a semester at the University of Nottingham, King said. She was a member of the fencing club, though King said she wasn't a very active participant any more. Salisbury was active musically, King said. She played clarinet in the college's concert band and saxophone in the pep band.
"Emily was probably the most caring and sincere person I've ever met in my life. She had a really kind heart and she really reached out to her friends. I still can't believe she's gone," King said.
The state division of Emergency Medical Services does not investigate ambulance accidents unless they deal directly with patient care, said Adam Myrick, public information director with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The agency is not likely to look into Tuesday's accident in Charleston because the ambulance was not carrying a patient at the time, Myrick said.
Doug Warren, director of Dorchester County EMS, said it's unusual for emergency vehicles to be involved in traffic accidents.
He said his paramedics undergo special driver training before they can operate ambulances. They also are required to become familiar with the ambulances under normal traffic conditions before they can drive on an emergency call.
Warren said each county has its own policies regarding emergency responses, but in general ambulances are required to obey all traffic laws and do not automatically have the right of way, he said.
"You can't ever assume you have it. The law always places the burden of responsibility on emergency responders."
Dorchester County's rules require ambulances to stop at every intersection and to stay within 10 mph of the posted speed limit, Warren said.
Still, it's impossible to predict what other motorists on the road will do. "It's not an easy task. They will stop in front of you. Instead of pulling to the right, they pull to the left."