Sierra Beth Soto danced ballet and tap, tumbled her way through gymnastics classes and won over strangers with her wide, gap-toothed grin. The 4-year-old believed in God, complained about combing her hair, loved her bunny rabbit named "Butterscotch" and adored anything pink.
"Sierra was the kind of little girl that, if you dream about having a little girl, she's the one you'd want," said family friend Jim Knost on Tuesday.
"No matter where she was, she lit up a room," wept another family friend, Sheri A. Senter.
On Monday, a driver with a grudge put out the youngster's spark, and that of 3-year-old Brandon Wiener, police say.
Steven Allen Abrams rammed his Cadillac into the postage-stamp playground at Southcoast Early Childhood Learning Center where Sierra, Brandon and other tots frolicked, authorities say. Crumpled by the car, Sierra died instantly. Brandon hung on a few more hours before dying at the hospital. Four other children and a teacher's aide were injured.
A day later, family and friends reached desperately for memories of the children who died, memories summed up in crayon drawings, in snapshots, in favorite toys. Unlike those who die after long and full lives, children leave behind only small reminders to comfort those who loved them.
Even though she'd never get her son back, Pam Wiener returned on Tuesday to the Costa Mesa center to retrieve Brandon's beloved teddy bear, something that she could hug instead of her precious boy with his 500-watt smile.
Carrie McCluskey, assistant director of the center, grabbed Wiener in a hug when she approached the center, escorted by her brother.
"Why?" cried Wiener over and over again, burying her face on McCluskey's shoulder.
The bear was tattered and light brown with a burgundy shirt--a toy Brandon simply called his "baby."
"He loved this bear," whispered Wiener, dressed in a black shirt and faded jeans. "He took it everywhere."
Collapsing into a blue plastic chair, Wiener clutched the worn bear and sobbed. Center director Sheryl Hawkinson knelt by Wiener's feet, held her hand and cried too.
Other teachers entered the classroom and joined the circle of mourners. Some took Brandon's artwork off the walls--purple construction paper with splotches of colored paint and a baby chick colored with magic markers.
"In the hospital, I kept telling him to fight, to hang on," said Wiener, her voice breaking. "I know he heard me. I know he did. But he was in such bad shape."
Wiener, of Costa Mesa, said her son will be buried in Burbank in a family plot. The boy also leaves behind a brother and sister.
While the grieving mother spoke, McCluskey tearfully pulled photos of Brandon off the classroom wall, gathering them for his family. Another teacher took his backpack off a yellow hook labeled "Brandon" in green and put it and his other belongings into a plastic sack.
The teachers and his mother described Brandon as a frisky boy with a quick laugh. Brandon's first word was "vacuum," his mother said, and he loved to help her clean house. He would help swab down counters at the day-care center too.
"He was such a good boy," Wiener sighed, looking up at the snowflake mobile hanging from the ceiling. "Such a good boy."
At the Dance Center in Newport Beach, owned by Sierra's mother, Cindy Soto, people streamed in and out Tuesday with flowers and remembrances of the girl.
Grief counselors will be coming to the school to help instructors and dozens of students who adored Sierra--a little sprite who hugged everybody and sometimes threw tantrums when her mom wouldn't let her dance with the big kids who study at the studio.
She liked to ask off-beat questions: What does God wear? Is there time-out in heaven?
Family friends have kept Cindy Soto away from the publicity surrounding the crash that killed her only child. They are insulating her from television and newspapers and are withholding news that the accident wasn't an accident, Senter said.
Just as Wiener cherishes her son's teddy bear, Cindy Soto holds a totem of her own--a photograph of a tutu-clad Sierra, hoisting a dance trophy she won recently.
"Nobody's holding up well," said family friend Knost, at whose house Cindy Soto is staying temporarily. "To see another person in this grief is devastating."
"This is every mother's worst nightmare--to have a child taken from you," Senter said. "What Cindy is trying to do now is make sure her daughter's life has meaning. How can she make her life meaningful?"
The parents of the other injured children are still reeling. Among them was Caroline Sherman, who stopped by the day-care center to exchange hugs with Hawkinson and Wiener.
Sherman's daughter, her skull fractured and pelvis shattered, survived the night at Western Medical Center-Santa Ana. The shards of skull didn't pierce her daughter's brain and she was steadily improving.
"Victoria will be OK," said Sherman, removing sunglasses that covered swollen eyes. "She doesn't have any brain damage, so she's going to be OK."
Sherman left to return to the hospital to wait with the parents of another critically injured child, Nicholas McHardy, who was in the intensive care unit with her daughter.
"The doctors said it would be a month before she could walk again," said Sherman. "She's so scared."
Even parents of those less seriously hurt felt permanently changed.
Randi Rubenstein, whose 2-year-old daughter, Jasmine Saltzman, was treated Monday for minor scrapes, was so frightened that--even hours after the tragedy--she could barely let go of her daughter's hand.
"We are really, really lucky," she said. "Thank God she's OK. Thank God she's OK."
Memorial funds for both Brandon Wiener and Sierra Soto have been set up at Home Savings of America. Contributions may be made at any branch.