Family copes with loss of 9-year-old daughter in bus accident

  • The day Summer Steele died was supposed to be devoted to putting the final touches on her Tootsie Roll costume for a school dance that night at Sanderson Academy, where she was in third grade. In ode to her costume, Summer even planned to dish out Tootsie Rolls to her friends. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Summer Steele COntributed photo

For The Recorder
Published: 3/3/2017 10:55:04 PM

Amanda Steele stood in the 9-year-old’s bedroom, her eyes searching for evidence of Summer’s last moments.

There, on a clock, she saw where her daughter had attached pencil-written reminders to finish her math and reading homework. Summer’s bed was neatly made, like always. Then, on the floor beneath her daughter’s bed, Amanda saw something more.

“My dreams,” read the piece of paper, which her daughter had decorated with a rainbow stretching across the top.

Per the list, the life Summer saw for herself, the life she never got to live, would unfold something like this: become a famous rock star, transform into a butterfly, ride on a dirt bike, sleep in a king-sized bed, to have a million dollars in cash, own 100 dogs.

“The one thing that changed about our lives,” Amanda says, thinking back on that day, “was everything.”

‘Summer Sky’

The day Summer died was supposed to be devoted to putting the final touches on her Tootsie Roll costume for a school dance that night at Sanderson Academy, where she was in third grade. In ode to her costume, Summer even planned to dish out Tootsie Rolls to her friends.

The candies are still tucked away in the kitchen pantry.

At about 4 p.m. on Oct. 28, Amanda and her husband Brent waited, like they did every day, to greet their two daughters as they hopped off the bus in front of their South Central Street home.

The third-grader stepped off the bus, only to become lodged in the door as it drove away. She died at the hospital an hour later. The case remains under investigation by the Northwestern district attorney’s office.

The tragedy sent shock waves through Summer’s family, through her home town and into the wider world. A state lawmaker is pushing legislation that, if passed, would require buses to install a special sensor near the door. Amanda said she’s heard from people as far away as Ireland who heard news of the family’s loss.

Four months later, Summer’s parents agreed to give their first interview. While they declined to discuss details of the events that led to her death, they said in an interview with the Gazette that they want people to know their daughter as more than a name on a police report.

“She was the light of our lives,” Amanda said at the family’s home. “We looked so forward to seeing the person she was going to become — someone special. Because we knew she was going to change the world in some way. Everyone always remembered her.”

And now, the mother said, “It’s an incredibly lonely journey to never have that … I was in awe of her, I really was. I think a lot of people were.”

Amanda, though she said she’s not particularly spiritual, sometimes steps outside and talks into the air as if she were talking to Summer. At night come the dreams in which she so clearly sees, hears and smells her daughter.

“It’s hard to believe we have to look at the sky or wish for a sign,” Amanda said.

Every day, Amanda and Brent are surrounded by reminders of the person their eldest daughter was — the girl they sometimes called “Summer breeze.”

Some days, Summer and her 7-year-old sister Skyler would blast their music outside. Summer’s favorites — Taylor Swift, Luke Bryan, One Direction — regularly rang through the neighborhood.

“It drove the neighbors crazy,” Amanda recalled.

“I’d give anything to hear it again,” she added.

Summer loved the outdoors and took pride in tending to the garden with her father. She was an avid athlete and a graceful dancer. From track and baseball and the Hilltown Junior Olympics, she collected more than two dozen medals and trophies, which still adorn her bedroom. This spring, she’d asked her parents to take golf lessons. From time to time, Summer and her younger sister, Skyler, choreographed dances in their garage.

When the family visited the beach, Summer and Skyler carved their collective signature into the wet sand: “Summer Sky.”

“As they got older, they became more of a team,” Brent said. “And half the team is gone now.”

Summer also reveled in the moments she had to herself. She would wrap herself in her favorite blanket, sprawl out on the couch with a bowl of popcorn in her lap and heating pad around her neck.

A piece of that blanket — “she brought it everywhere, it was just in knots,” said her mom — is now fastened around a teddy bear that Amanda sleeps with every night.

Summer was the kind of person who went out of her way to ensure the comfort of those around her, Amanda said.

“Oh, mommy, you can sit here on the couch. You can have my spot. You want my pillow? You want a heating pad?” Summer would say to her mother.

“No, no, Summer, I’m OK, I’m OK.”

“No, no, mommy, you can have my spot,” Summer would insist.

In many ways, her parents said, Summer personified her own name. The 9-year-old loved the warm months, splashing in the water and planting flowers. Especially sunflowers.

Family photos show Summer and her only sister running through dandelion fields behind their house, holding hands and smiling, apparently caught mid-laugh.

Mornings

For Amanda and Brent, mornings tend to be the hardest.

Every day, when Summer was alive, she’d wake up on her own, trek downstairs while pulling her blanket behind her, walk into the kitchen and pour a glass of orange juice. Then she’d sink into the couch to watch episodes of “iCarly.”

“She was ready before anyone, always,” Amanda said.

The routine never ceased to impress and bewilder her parents.

“We knew every step,” Amanda said. “Every sound.”

Before Summer got dressed, she’d walk outside into the morning darkness and feed her rabbits — Bobo, Fluffy and Tater Tot.

“Now, I’m doing it,” Amanda said. “And it’s heartbreaking. It’s really hard for me to go out there, but I do it.”

In her imagination, the mother can still hear the sound of Summer’s blanket — the blanket she always had in her hand, the blanket she was buried with — hitting each step as her daughter descended the creaky wooden staircase before getting ready for school.

In reality, there is only silence.




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