From the Piggly Wiggly on DeKalb Street, past a big brick church on the right and Hams Used Cars on the left, it is not far to the turn onto Highway 34. From there, after a mile or so, the two-lane road climbs up a slight hill. On the right is a white fence in need of work. Farther up on the left, a Dollar General.
It is here at the intersection of the two-lane highway and Precipice Road that the unthinkable occurred two years ago.
To this day, 27-month-old Daniel Bradley’s parents, Sarah Beth and Adam, continue to struggle with what happened to their son in his rear-facing, five-point harness car seat, which was stationed in the back seat of the vehicle he was riding in. The car door opened -- Daniel likely pulled the shiny door handle -- and he fell onto the road from the moving automobile.
Several hours later, in an emergency room in a Columbia hospital, Daniel’s parents told their first-born child good-bye.
“The doctor came in and asked for us,” said Sarah Beth, who, through her work, is familiar with bodily trauma.
“The doctor took us into another room and there was another physician, some type of trauma specialist. He said, ‘We’ve tried. We’ve given Daniel a lot of blood, but we can’t get a heartbeat. I said, ‘Just stop. I know he is gone.’ I never wanted Adam to feel like he had been the one to say, ‘Stop.’ The doctor said, ‘Even if we could get his heart back, he will never be y’all’s little boy. The little boy you knew.’”
That little boy had blue eyes and blond hair that curled at the nape of his neck. He was an early walker. Loved trains and machines, which he called “sheens.” He’d learned to count, even in Spanish. The beach was one of his favorite places and he was not afraid of the waves, jumping over them for hours with his father.
“He’d run up and down the beach without a care in the world,” Sarah Beth said, “just loving every moment.”
Until there were few moments left; until August 12, 2017.
“I was working at Lexington Cardiology at the time,” Sarah Beth said.
“It was my on-call weekend. Daniel’s accident happened on a Saturday. I was up all (Friday) night before. Daniel was staying with extended family. That afternoon, I was napping. Daniel was still with extended family. Adam came running in the house. He said, ‘Someone (a witness to the accident) just called and said that they think our child has just fallen out of a car.’
“My first thought was, ‘The car must’ve been parked. Daniel couldn’t be that hurt.’ Adam said, ‘No, I think something is really wrong.’”
Sarah Beth and Adam raced out of the house; got in their car and headed toward KershawHealth, the county hospital. Sarah Beth dialed 911 on the way and told the dispatcher that she was the mother of the child who had fallen out of a car.
“The dispatcher informed me that Daniel would be coming by ambulance to the hospital…When we arrived at the hospital, the ambulance was pulling up. I was trying to hold myself together but the lights and sirens were on and I knew that was not a good sign. All I could think is that I needed to get to Daniel.
“They finally let Adam and I go back to where Daniel was. The doctor told us it was really bad. They had coded him. He had lost a lot of blood and he was intubated, but he had a heartbeat. I tried to prepare Adam for going back to see Daniel. I said, ‘Adam, there’s going to be lots of blood and lots of tubes.’ Daniel had multiple fractures to his skull and several other broken bones. The doctors said they thought he had fallen on his head.”
Meanwhile, a helicopter was on its way to transport Daniel to a Columbia hospital.
“I was kissing Daniel and holding his hand,” Sarah Beth said.
“The helicopter finally arrived and I was throwing up by then. They were wheeling Daniel to the helicopter and he coded again, so they had to bring him back in the hospital and get his heartbeat back, which they did.”
When Daniel was finally put in the helicopter, there was no room for Sarah Beth or Adam.
“I couldn’t believe what was happening,” Sarah Beth said.
“My child was in that helicopter and I couldn’t go with him. I looked at the helicopter nurse and said, ‘Please take care of him.’”
Adam and Sarah Beth, who was seven months pregnant with her second child, were driven to the Columbia hospital by family. They sat in the back seat of the car.
“We prayed the whole way,” Sarah Beth said. “I was lying down in Adam’s lap. I was thinking, ‘How can it be? How could Daniel have gotten out of his car seat?’”
The Bradleys, friends and more family arrived at the hospital. Sarah Beth cannot recall what time her child was pronounced dead, but she remembered that it was dark outside.
“I just laid in bed and held him,” Sarah Beth said.
“Adam held him and rocked him. We were there for hours. We stayed until they told us it was time to go. We were holding him and kissing him and we told him we loved him. I knew then that this would be the last time I would hold him and kiss him. I knew that it would be the last time I would be able to smell him.”
Daniel was buried next to his grandfather -- Sarah Beth’s father -- several days later in the Quaker Cemetery in Camden. Two toy trains were enclosed in his small hands -- Thomas the Tank Engine and Percy the Small Engine from the children’s television show Thomas & Friends.
Sarah Beth and Adam moved in with her mother and prepared to sell the Camden house they had lived in with their little boy.
“The times that I went in there -- to move things out -- I would lie on the floor in Daniel’s room and cry. Or, I would lay in his bed and smell his pillow. Being there, it hurt too much… Part of my heart was gone.”
But other parts remained.
Evie, Sarah Beth and Adam’s daughter, was born Nov. 7, 2017.
“Evie is the only reason we have gotten through this,” Sarah Beth said.
“With Daniel gone, I could still feel life in me. It was a constant reminder that I still had a life to live for. Adam and I lean on each other. I have the support of my family and friends… We have found some happiness, but every day remains bittersweet. We have happiness, but not the pure happiness we once had… As weird as it seems to say, I still feel like I am blessed. I have a beautiful little girl.”
And a particular passion.
After Daniel’s death, Sarah Beth took a course in Sumter and became a certified car seat technician.
“Before Daniel’s accident, I was the mother who researched car seats. I was the mother who read the car seat manual of every car seat we owned, but there is a very high percentage of parents who use car seats incorrectly… I realized my friends were using car seats incorrectly. Either they were not installed correctly or the child was not buckled in properly, the straps being too loose.
“Officially, I’m called a Child Passenger Safety Technician. This is something I am so passionate about.”
On Sept. 7, Sarah Beth will be working at a child car seat check from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. at Chick-Fil-A in Camden, an event in its second year and one she helps organize. The check is sponsored by Pediatric Associates of Camden, KershawHealth, Safe Kids Kershaw County, Camden Fire Department, and Chick-Fil-A.
“During the event, we make sure the seat is not expired and appropriate for the weight and height of the child. We make sure the seat is installed properly and we teach the adult how to install the seat. We then make sure the child is harnessed correctly and also make sure the parents can harness the child correctly… If a child is in an incorrect seat, we do our best to try and provide a safe seat for the child to leave in… This makes me feel like I am making a difference.”
Daniel would have turned 4 in May.
Sarah Beth said she thinks of her son every day and although revisiting the memories of the tragedy has been painful, she feels that “if it can save one life by telling our story, doing so will have been worthwhile.”
The family whose vehicle Daniel fell from thinks of him too.
“It was a horrible, horrible tragedy,” said a member of that family, “and it’s been extremely hard on everyone.”
A simple, gray stone marks Daniel’s grave in Quaker Cemetery. “DANIEL JAMES BRADLEY -- SON OF ADAM LAWRENCE AND SARAH ELIZABETH CREED BRADLEY -- MAY 19, 2015 – AUG. 12, 2017.”
Five tiny toy cars line the bottom on the gravestone. A dump truck, a frontend loader, a tractor, and two trains.
Or, as Daniel would’ve had said, “sheens.”
(Email story ideas to McInerney at firstname.lastname@example.org.)