V2 stopped to yield to Law Enforcement Officer…                             Back

The timeline of the occurrences of the next week will never be fixed firmly in my mind. From the Emergency Room I called my cousin Richard in Melbourne, fifty miles distant, and from that point on things just seemed to happen. People and events came and went. Arrangements seemed to materialize out of the thin air. The house was packed and the doorbell rang constantly. The phone would ring and one of my cousins would answer and head out the back door-soon to emerge from the garage pacing on the driveway as they spoke to the unknown caller. Occasionally they would bring the phone to me and whisper who it was as they handed the phone to me. Food, cards and flowers were everywhere. Our dog, Abbey, who normally would excitedly race barking to the front door when visitors approached, now sat quietly by Patti and surveyed all the happenings around her.

A number of images and memories are burned into my brain and they seem as vivid as they were a few days after they occurred with the exception of where they lie in the sequence of time:

At one end of our street is a gate to the Winter Park High School parking lot. It is closed off except for a couple of hours before and after school. That first morning because of all the family and friends, as well as several TV remote vehicles parking on the curb and a monumental traffic jam ensued. Tempers flared, horns honked continuously and it required the Winter Park Police Department to untangle the mess.

At the lunch hour at John’s High School, located two doors from our home, a number of John’s varsity baseball teammates jumped the fence and sought him out. Six or seven of them stood in a circle on the sidewalk with John-each with their hands in their pockets and looking down at their feet. Hardly a word was spoken-yet each of the young men communicated volumes.

A “shrine” was established by several of Sarah’s friends at the front door of our home in response to the flowers, stuffed animals and other items that began to gather there. They put Sarah’s High School graduation picture and her favorite Teddy bear there among what had gathered previously. People silently came and went leaving flowers and mementos. Film crews zeroed-in their bulky cameras on her picture for newscasts.

A teacher from Mary’s school came with a box of handmade cards from all the students in the fifth grade. All were heartfelt and serious but many were restricted by a fifth grader’s limited grasp of the language. For example, “I’m sorry your sister is dead. Love Bret.” We read many of them and put them away for a later, less complicated time.

The house was full for the first four or five days. There evolved a pattern where all the adults gathered in the family room, Sarah’s friends in the living room, and all the youngsters on the screen porch and in the back yard. Late each evening everyone would begin to leave and the house would become quiet-leaving Patti, Mary, John, myself and my mother’s cousin Shirley. I had called Shirley and asked her to come up from Sarasota. My mother, stricken with Altzhiemers, was in a nursing home and had lost touch with reality many months ago. I had instinctively turned to Shirley as a stand-in for my mother. The quiet house was disturbing. No longer would all the activity, conversation and even confusion distract us from the grim reality. When we went to bed our thoughts inevitably turned to Sarah. When her phone rang that first night I felt that she was on the other end, and I was afraid to answer it and instead disconnected it when it stopped ringing.

I wandered into the living room one evening as Sarah’s friends, most home from college for the holidays, were telling “Sarah stories”, one by one and each by turn. Mostly laughing, sometimes crying, they revealed to each other and to Sarah’s eavesdropping father the depths and complexities of her character and vibrant personality. It seemed that each of them felt that they were Sarah’s best friend-and perhaps they were.

A lady came to the front door and introduced herself as a neighbor and asked to speak to Patti. She came in and sat next to Patti and explained that she lived a few streets over and that she had a younger daughter named Sarah and that she and her daughter we so disturbed by Sarah’s death that she was compelled to pay Patti a visit. She and Patti spoke for a few minutes and the lady left, leaving a bracelet sent by her daughter Sarah for “Sarah’s Mom.”

As the plans were being made for Sarah’s funeral it was decided that because of the nature of Sarah’s death arrangements must be made to accommodate large numbers of mourners. To me, it seemed part of a “pitch” by the funeral director. Later events would prove his sincerity and my cynicism. Two viewings were scheduled-one for family and close friends, on Sunday, and another open viewing the following day. The funeral was scheduled for Tuesday at the Winter Park First Methodist Church.

When we arrived at the funeral home on Sunday evening there were already a number of family and friends present in the waiting area. After exchanging greetings we went into the chapel-Sarah’s coffin was surrounded by a multitude of flowers of all descriptions and colors. It was almost overwhelming. As I approached Sarah’s coffin and gazed down at her my reaction was one of shock. She looked almost plastic-she had looked so alive when I had last seen her on the gurney at the hospital emergency room. My thoughts turned to Patti. How would she react? Should I close the casket? Patti approached and looked down at Sarah. We wept quietly as we held hands. After several awkward hours everyone left and Patti, Mary, John, Shirley and I reluctantly returned to our quiet, empty home and our thoughts of Sarah.

For the public viewing the funeral home had set up a greatly expanded viewing room removing several partitions and adding a large number of couches and chairs. They had extra staff to handle the anticipated crowd. The number and variety of flowers had continued to expand and the room was an amazing amalgam of aromas, colors and ribbon. It was breathtaking. Sarah’s friends had chosen many of Sarah’s favorites for the music to be played. REM, N-SYNC, Garth Books, Faith Hill, Beastie Boys, Dixie Chicks, Eagles, Manhiem Steamroller, Momas and Popas, Christina Aguilera. Beatles, Tim McGraw, Weezer, and a song added by her father-The Beach Boys’ Don’t Worry Baby. A varied and generation gap jumping menu that celebrated her life rather than serving as a backdrop to her death.

I remember few of the details of the next few hours. Hundreds of people came. Sarah’s friends, family friends, John and Mary’s friends, family, old teachers, current teachers, customers, business associates, old neighbors, new neighbors and more than a few strangers. Sarah’s death and the circumstances surrounding it had caught the attention of the community-just as the funeral director had said it would. After the viewing we returned to our empty home and bed to rest, as best we could, for Sarah’s funeral the next day.

All of the close family members gathered at our home the next morning and waited for the arrival of the limousines to take us to the church for Sarah’s funeral. They arrived at the appointed time and shortly we arrived at the church. We all gathered in the Pastor’s study, a room situated just off the front of the sanctuary. Several of Sarah’s friends from her high-school orchestra were playing as the mourners were gathering in the church. As the service began we were all lead to the first few rows of the church. As we filed out to the sanctuary I was overwhelmed by the number of people there-the church was overflowing. The service was performed by the associate pastor of the First Methodist that Patti and the kids had been attending and the youth minister of the close-by Presbyterian Church where they used to attend and where all of the kids had enjoyed attending youth activities for years.

Again, the specific chronology of events is foggy. Sarah’s friend Kendra, who we did not know before, had volunteered to sing Amazing Grace, a hymn of particular significance for Patti. Patti had simply asked if anyone could sing one evening at the gathered crowd at our house and Kendra had stepped forward. When she approached the pulpit and cleared her throat, we had no idea what to expect. She began a little nervously, and as she settled down she gave one of the most beautiful renditions of the song I had ever heard. When she began the second verse her voice wavered a bit, and tears began to trickle down her cheeks. She gathered herself, once again, and finished the song, leaving almost everyone in the church wiping away tears.

Several of Sarah’s friends spoke a few words, as well as my cousin Steve, known to my kids as Unka Steve, and the father of a young boy that Sarah had babysat for many years.

As the service ended, we left the church down the center isle and after having concentrated my attention to the pulpit through the service I was again shocked by the number of people. The limousines were waiting and we all got in and waited for the procession to the gravesite. It took quite a time to organize everything, but we were soon off being escorted by the Winter Park Police Department. All the intersections were blocked through town with officers standing at attention by their vehicles. When the procession entered onto Interstate 4, the major North/South artery of Orlando, the escort was taken up by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and the Orlando Police Department. They actually blocked the entrance ramps. I could not help but wonder about the gridlock that must have resulted. When the procession turned onto the East-West Expressway the escort and blockades continued until we reached the exit for the cemetery. During planning our funeral director had said that he would request the police escort, but he didn’t expect that it would be approved. “It has to be a Police Officer or a prominent politician these days,” he said.

When we arrived at the gravesite, graciously given to Sarah by Patti’s parents, which was adjacent to where Patti’s parents and Sarah’s Great Grandmother would be buried, I was pleased to note that it was only a few hundred feet from the gravesite of my Stepfather and where my mother’s gravesite would be. It was comforting to know that Sarah would be nestled between people who loved her dearly.

After the short gravesite service I walked over to the twisted oak tree which shaded the grave of Doswell Harriss Moore. “Dee” was the finest man I have ever known, a man of unbounded generosity, eternal good cheer and steadfast dependability. “Keep an eye for Sarah, Dee,” I whispered. In my heart I know he heard me.

As per custom many of the funeral attendees returned to our home and Patti, John, Mary and I retreated into the womb of our noisy family and friends. Soon they would begin to leave and resign us to the deafening quiet of an empty house. There was, however, the prospect of returning to work the next day and back to the familiar routine and a longed-for semblance of normality.

Somewhere among all the events of those days following Sarah’s death, I received a telephone call from someone representing the Victim’s Advocate Office of the Florida Highway Patrol. He said that he had obtained the crash report and asked if I would like for him to read it to me. I said yes, but also requested that a copy be sent to me.

In the period after Sarah’s death there had been extensive media coverage and, as we would learn is commonplace, there was a wide variance in what various outlets reported as fact. While Patti and I were oblivious to all the coverage, there was speculation among family members as to what had actually happened in the early morning hours of the previous Thursday, and many whispered conversations were halted at our approach.

When the report was read to me, and repeated several times at my request, it fueled a serious and extended discussion as to the possible sequence of events:

“V1 was travelling westbound on Lackanotosa Trl. fleeing from Law Enforcement. V2 was travelling westbound on Lockanotosa Trl. in front of V1. V2 stopped to yield to Law Enforcement Officer placing stop sticks in the roadway. The Officer pulled the stop sticks out of the path of V2 when he realized it was not the fleeing vehicle. V1 failed to stop behind V2, the front of V1 struck the rear of V2. V1 came to final rest facing westbound on the west side of Rouse Rd. After V1 rearended V2, V1 left the roadway to the south. The front of V1 struck two trees and a road sign before final rest. V2 struck a utility pole while coming to final rest. D2 Sarah Marie Phillips, DOB 01-24-84, sustained fatal injuries as a result of the crash and expired on 12-13-01 at 2:01am…”

”V2 stopped to yield to Law Enforcement Officer placing stop sticks in the roadway. The Officer pulled the stop sticks out of the path of V2 when he realized it was not the fleeing vehicle.”

The strange comfort to be found in the cliché of “wrong place, wrong time”, the term accident, the focusing of the media solely on the actions of the fleeing suspects and the “circling of the wagons” by the Sheriff’s Office, became questionable with the reading of the crash report. It became apparent that much more information was needed to explain what had happened. Patti and I were overcome with suspicion and dread and an unvoiced fear that Sarah had died needlessly.

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