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The family tragedy in the driveway

Each week in the U.S., at least two children die and 50 are hurt in backover accidents. Often it's a relative who is behind the wheel.

July 15, 2007|Michael Graczyk | Associated Press

RICHARDSON, TEXAS — It was Adrianna's day to go to the mall, and her mom was looking forward to it. Mother and daughter alone together.

Just three weeks before, Rachel Clemens' own mother had died after a long illness and in the previous week she had organized a party for son Andrew's seventh birthday. She and her husband, David, had taken Adrianna and Andrew bowling with his friends and a couple of them had spent the night.

The next day, Oct. 9, 2004, a Saturday, would be Adrianna's day, although for this family it would forever be linked with tragedy.

David had made breakfast for everyone and cleaned up while his wife and 2-year-old Adrianna took a bath.

"I was blow-drying my hair," Rachel said. "I flipped my hair over. I looked up and she wasn't there." Adrianna probably went upstairs to see her brother and his friends, she thought.

Then she heard her husband's screams.

He had told her he was going to move their SUV so he could get into a storage area above the garage ceiling to retrieve some decorations for Halloween.

"Adrianna must have come out of the kitchen and out to the garage," she said. "And he backed out."

Adrianna was hit by a 2 1/2 -ton mass of steel.

The girl, whose raven hair and dark eyes resembled her mother's, was dead.

Adrianna was one of more than 1,200 children younger than 15 who have been killed in non-traffic motor vehicle accidents in the United States since 2000. Half of those fatalities were in backovers, almost all of them involving children younger than 5, according to Kids and Cars, a child safety advocacy group in Leawood, Kan.

Each week, at least two children are killed and 50 are injured in backover accidents. Over three days in April, six children were killed; by the end of the month, 11 more had died, the group said.

Rear cameras and audible warning sensors -- technology that could reduce the number of fatalities -- are not considered safety equipment by automakers and are offered only as options in most vehicles. It could be years before they become as ubiquitous as seat belts.

"Everybody says the worst thing that could ever happen is the death of a child," says Janette Fennell, the advocacy group's founder and president. "What's different in these, in over 70% of the cases, it's a direct relative ... that's behind the wheel -- mom or dad, grandma or grandpa, aunt or uncle."

Losing a child, compounded by unimaginable guilt over who was responsible for the accident, leaves families traumatized and immobilized in their grief. With no easy answers for why it happened to their child or their family, anger and blame often are misdirected. The strain on relationships can be tremendous.

The Clemenses believed they had taken all the precautions to protect their children. They had installed a fence around the backyard swimming pool, with a gate latch high enough so the children couldn't reach it. But when they purchased their Infiniti QX4, they were coaxed into getting a sunroof. No mention was made of rear cameras that could help them see better while backing up, Rachel said.

"My husband and I were comatose for months" after Adrianna died, Rachel said. She still appears broken and frail, seated in an overstuffed chair in the den of their suburban Dallas home.

On the beige walls of the converted bedroom she called her "safety haven" were family snapshots and studio photos of Adrianna, one depicting her as an angel.

"I have to have her all around me," Rachel said. "I feel her with me when I'm in here. I feel her closeness."

She hung poster-size images of Adrianna on one wall but her husband couldn't bear to look at them, so she put them away.

David still won't speak publicly about that day. Two-and-a-half years later, his anguish is still raw.

"You have a name on you now and it's a horrible feeling," Rachel said. "We're not just the Clemenses. We're 'the ones.' My husband, it took him years before he could even walk down the street. You just feel like everybody looks at you, pointing to you.

"It's not that they don't want to talk to us. They don't know what to say," she said. "As a grieving parent, my advice is not say anything, just let us talk. That's the best comfort you can give us."

Adrianna and Andrew already were the best of friends, yet with strikingly different personalities. Andrew is the sensitive one, "more protector than anything else," his mother said. Adrianna was outgoing, fearless.

"Nothing would get by her," Rachel said. "She'd let you know. She'd defend Andrew in front of his friends and Andrew's friends would cry because Adrianna would yell at them."

"How could it happen?" Rachel asked.

Fennell calls it "bye-bye syndrome." A parent says they're running out briefly. The child hears "bye-bye" and decides, "I want to go bye-bye too."

"They sneak out. They can see the car. ... They have no idea they're putting themselves in harm's way," Fennell said.

It's been almost five years, and Greg Gulbransen has begun to forgive himself for his very human mistake.

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