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WETZSTEIN: Horrible aftermath of hot-car deaths

First of two parts

Among parental nightmares, forgetting one's child in a hot car may be the most monstrous. Already this year, at least 22 sets of grieving parents have taken up their crosses of pain. The tally includes a Loudoun County father who forgot to take his newly adopted son to day care and went to work instead. The father was so distraught he was hospitalized for days after the child's death.

How does one survive such a catastrophe? How does a marriage stay intact? If these kinds of deaths are preventable, what can we do?

Safety advocates begin by begging other adults to show mercy, and not judge.

Parents who accidentally leave their children in cars are "not stupid," says Janette Fennell, founder of kidsandcars.org, which monitors all kinds of fatal nontraffic accidents involving children.

Most are loving, caring parents who also are multitasking, under stress and functioning without a lot of sleep, she says. Their minds and memories play tricks on them - instead of going to day care or grandma's house (which is not in their routine), they are distracted by a phone call or a traffic jam, and they go on autopilot, which is to get to work.

Listen to a college professor who in August 2003 was supposed to take his 10-month-old son, born after in-vitro fertilization, to day care. Instead, he drove to work, parked the car and went into the office.

"At your greatest moment of need, I failed you horrifically," the professor said at the child's eulogy. "Worst of all, I have no explanation for what I have done. I cannot understand how I, who loved you more than the air I breathed, who would have gladly given my life for you, could have done such a thing."

"There's no punishment that anybody walking this planet could give me that could ever compare to how I feel," Todd Costello told an Ohio newspaper not long after he left his 9-month-old son, Tyler, in his car outside his office.

Most hot-vehicle deaths are the result of a loving parent or caregiver who experienced a fatal distraction. In 2007, The Associated Press reviewed details of 339 children who died of hyperthermia in a vehicle over a 10-year period. Few of the deaths - about 7 percent - involved drugs or alcohol; fewer still involved families in the child welfare system. Half the cases were so obviously a horrible accident that no charges were filed.

How does one recover from such a tragedy? The simple answer is by enduring one miserable step after another until time blunts the pain.

July 29 was the six-year anniversary of Tyler's death.

"Some days, I guess, it's surprising that we survived it as well as we survived it," Mr. Costello told me recently. "To think that it's been six years and everything we started with - court matters, police matters, our own bouts of depression, trying to go through counseling, all those things seemed like huge mountain tasks that were ahead of us."

Getting through it "started with our faith, it started with the foundation of our marriage. It was strongly supported by our desire to be a good parent to our older daughter," who was then 4 years old, he said. A strong support network - "your nuclear family, your friends from work, your friends from church, your neighbors" - also helped, plus "a whole list of strangers and people who felt compelled to reach out and find us and send us an encouraging word."

But there's no glossing over the agony of the process.

Hearing about how the brain works, and how good, intelligent people can be distracted is all well and good, Mr. Costello said. "But some days, it just gnaws at me. And it's going to gnaw at this [Loudoun County] father just as much, and that's probably why he is in the hospital.

"Internally, he is angry. He feels guilty. He doesn't have any answers," Mr. Costello said, his voice choking up.

Next Sunday: More on recovery and how to prevent hot-vehicle deaths.

Cheryl Wetzstein's column appears on Tuesdays and Sundays. She can be reached at cwetzstein@ washingtontimes.com.

About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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