A veteran Chester County school bus driver was less than a mile from work yesterday when she was killed in a three-vehicle collision that closed Route 322 for six hours, police said.

West Brandywine Police Chief Walt Werner said Dewey Book, 49, of Honey Brook Township, was traveling east on Route 322 at 6:38 a.m. en route to her job at the Krapf's bus companies. Werner said Book had stopped her Dodge Caravan to make a left turn onto Highspire Road when she was struck from behind by a pickup truck.

"She was a sweetheart . . . one of our best employees," said Dallas Krapf, one of the company's owners. "She was always available, always willing to help."

Werner said the impact of the crash propelled Book's vehicle into the westbound lane, where it was hit from the side by a Cadillac. He said Book, who was wearing a seat belt, was pronounced dead at the scene.

Werner said the passenger and driver of the Cadillac and the pickup driver were taken to Reading Hospital and Medical Center and Brandywine Hospital for what appeared to be nonlife-threatening injuries.

Krapf said Book, an 11-year employee, drove Downingtown Bus 79, which served the Villa Maria Lower School in Malvern and SS. Peter and Paul elementary school in Exton. She also did many field trips, he said, driving schoolchildren "of all ages."

He described Book, a mother of two daughters, 23 and 25, and a new grandmother, as eminently "huggable." He said Book was looking forward to visiting her grandson - "not even a year old" - in Rhode Island over the holidays.

Werner said the investigation was continuing.