READER’S DIGEST APRIL 2007
On a warm Saturday afternoon in April 2004, Bill and Adriann Nelson’s two-story Colonial home in Dix Hills, New York, was humming with activity. Adriann, her brother Al, and her father, Alfred Raschdorf, a retired sheet metal mechanic and handyman, were installing a hood over the stove in the house the Nelsons were nearly finished building on their two-and-a-half-acre property.
Bill and Adriann had started the project when Adriann was pregnant with their third child, Alec, who was now 16 months. An easygoing, happy boy, Alec was having a particularly good day. He had been to a birthday party and ridden a pony for the first time. After his nap, he bounded out of the house and joined Derek, six, and Sonia, three, on the front lawn, where they were hosing off a play schoolhouse.
Courtesy Rachel Clemens
Two-year-old Adrianna Clemens died in 2004 when her father accidentally backed over her in his SUV.
Just below the Nelsons’ house was a smaller bungalow that the family was living in during the construction. The couple had purchased the property, set well off a dead-end street, nine years earlier, knowing their children could play freely on it without fear of traffic. They never imagined one of the greatest threats to their safety waited, on this particular day, in their own driveway.
With their combined incomes — Bill worked as a sales engineer for a major telecommunications company, Adriann was an international flight attendant — they could support a large family. Their dream was to have four children, and as soon as the new house was finished, they’d planned on having another baby. The week before Alec was born, the Nelsons had also completed a 40-hour foster-parent-training course, hoping, at some point, to help make a difference in yet another child’s life.
Next to family, faith was the most important thing to the Nelsons. In church each Sunday, Bill would often think how blessed his family was. He and Adriann had a good marriage, and their kids were happy and well.
At five o’clock that spring evening, Bill left for the hospital to visit his brother, who was having some tests done. He’d planned to return home in time to head out to a friend’s surprise 40th birthday party later that night.
Meanwhile, Adriann got the kids ready for a sleepover at their grandparents’ house, just ten miles away. She tucked their overnight bag into the back of her father’s Ford Explorer, and Derek and Sonia climbed into the backseat. Then Adriann ran back to the house to get Alec’s diaper bag, and for a few seconds, everyone thought the baby was with someone else.
While Opa, as the kids called their grandfather, waited for his daughter to bring out the Pampers, he decided to back his SUV down the sloping driveway that ran beside both houses so Adriann wouldn’t have far to walk. After looking in his side and rearview mirrors, the 70-year-old released the emergency brake and let his SUV coast slowly toward the front house. About halfway down, he felt a bump and thought he’d run over a wooden beam. Nearing the house, he stopped the car, looked up and saw the unimaginable: his grandson Alec lying motionless on the drive, in a pool of blood.
Tragedies happen in a split second, leaving a lifetime of agony and grief in their wake. Once thought to be freak accidents, back-over incidents now regularly show up in headlines around the country: “Toddler Accidentally Killed by Mother at Fort Detrick,” “Dad, Uncle Back Truck Over, Kill 3-Year-Old.” According to research obtained by Consumer Reports, each week some 48 children are treated in emergency rooms after being backed over by drivers. Most of the time, it’s a parent or other relative who was at the wheel.
And the incidence of fatalities has been increasing. In 2005, at least 100 children died in back-over accidents, up from no fewer than 59 in 2002. Vehicle safety experts link the problem to the popularity of pickups, SUVs and minivans, which have larger blind spots behind them — some deeper than 50 feet if the driver isn’t tall — than that of passenger cars. “The bigger the car, the bigger the blind zone,” explains David Champion, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports.
“And with so many of these vehicles out there now,” adds a Consumers Union attorney, “they’re tragedies waiting to happen.”
Adriann called Bill at the hospital. “I need you to come home,” she said. She didn’t say why, but Bill left immediately.
Concerned by the tense tone of his wife’s voice, he called her back from his car to ask, “Is everything okay?”
“Just come home,” Adriann said.
As he pulled into the driveway, Bill caught sight of his father-in-law curled in the fetal position on the ground, sobbing. Adriann was holding Alec in her arms. Probably nursing him, Bill thought. But why had she covered him with a towel? As Bill walked closer, Adriann blurted out: “He’s dead. Don’t look at him. Just remember how he was.”
Bill’s head spun as he tried to comprehend the situation. Adriann’s father cried out, “I’m so, so sorry, Bill. I didn’t see Alec. It was an accident.”
Trained to deal with emergency situations as a flight attendant, Adriann had the presence of mind to protect Sonia and Derek from the full extent of the horror. She’d rushed them inside the house and asked her brother to keep them away from the scene.
The next morning, Adriann and Bill explained what happened to Derek, who adored his little brother. When he asked, “Where’s Alec?” Adriann said finally, “He’s gone. He’s in heaven.”
Alec was buried the following Wednesday. The Nelsons asked for donations to help build a playground for underprivileged kids in their community. (The Alec William Nelson Memorial Playground, constructed with $80,000 raised in the boy’s name, opened in nearby Huntington Station in April 2005.)
In the months following Alec’s death, Adriann and Bill Nelson both had trouble sleeping, eating and concentrating on ordinary tasks like making beds or paying bills. “It was tough just to get up and function every day,” recalls Bill. They went to bereavement counseling — as did Derek and Sonia — and read every book at the local library about losing a child, hoping to find some sentence or thought that might console them. Mostly, they prayed. “I don’t know where we would have been without our faith,” Bill says.
Adriann’s father was another story. When he was out in the community, he felt that people were looking at him, thinking, There’s the one who killed him — it’s all his fault. Guilt hollowed him out. He could hardly feel anything, and he cried frequently. On the night of the tragedy, Adriann told him, “I forgive you. It’s no one’s fault.”
Courtesy Bill Nelson
Alec Nelson at age one.
But, says Raschdorf, “I can never forgive myself. It would have been better if it’d happened to me.”
The Nelsons had no idea how common back-over accidents were until they searched the Internet. There they came across Kids and Cars (kidsandcars.org). The Kansas-based nonprofit group is backing legislation before Congress to set visibility standards for vehicles based on what the driver can see when backing up.
Through Kids and Cars, the Nelsons learned that the so-called bye-bye syndrome is often a cause of these accidents: Not wanting to be left behind when they see parents or other relatives leave the house, many toddlers wander out after them, undetected. Adriann and Bill also met dozens of families who had experienced similar tragedies and took strength from them.
Six months after Alec died, the Nelsons attended a nearby fund-raiser to support the safety bill. Called the Cameron Gulbransen Kids and Cars Safety Act, it was named after a two-year-old Long Island child whose father, a pediatrician, accidentally killed him when he backed over the boy in his SUV in 2002. At the event, Bill and Adriann were inspired by Dr. Greg Gulbransen’s strength and resolve, and decided to launch an event — an annual Alec’s Run ( alecsrun.com) — in their own community to help raise public awareness about the dangers of SUV blind spots. At the time, Adriann was five months pregnant.
In Garland, Texas, 1,400 miles from the Nelsons’ Long Island home, Rachel and David Clemens go through the motions of their daily lives, even though their world has unraveled. David picks up their eight-year-old son, Andrew, from school, and Rachel fixes a snack for the boy and his friend when they get home. But signs of the unspeakable tragedy they recently suffered are all around: a half-finished tile floor in the kitchen, a disassembled stereo and the tears that come so easily when Rachel talks about that October morning in 2004.
While David was fixing breakfast on that Saturday, Rachel showered. Afterward, as Rachel blow-dried her hair, two-and-a-half-year-old Adrianna joined her on a bench in the bathroom. Mother and daughter were planning to go shopping together later in the day. Adrianna was a joyous child, an extrovert, with blue eyes and curly blond hair. She loved to dance and make her big brother laugh. “I remember looking at her and thinking how perfect she was,” says Rachel. “God had blessed us.”
After breakfast, David went to the garage to pull out the family’s Halloween decorations. He got into their Infiniti SUV and slowly backed it up to give himself some more room. Then he felt a bump. He had accidentally run over Adrianna, who had wandered out of the house without anyone seeing her. His daughter died instantly from the impact.
For months after the accident, both Rachel and David struggled to get through each day. Both sought counseling, and David, formerly a successful TV news producer and marketing specialist, began taking an antidepressant, which did nothing to assuage his guilt. He routinely found himself pacing, smoking and fidgeting, as if trying to free himself from his own skin — and the unrelenting pain.
“We had a good marriage and a wonderful family life,” says David, “and in a second, everything was ruined. I blame myself. If it hadn’t been for my son, I likely would have taken my own life.”
Because David was unable to work for a long time, the Clemenses fell behind on their mortgage and began living on credit cards. Friends and relatives encouraged them to try to move on. But, says David, “it’s something you never get over. The pain never goes away.” They talked about having another child but remained stuck in grief, unable to forgive themselves or each other, their simmering anger often erupting into shouting matches. “You murdered our daughter,” Rachel would sometimes yell.
“Where were you?” David would shout back. “Why didn’t you keep an eye on her?”
Like the Nelsons, they turned to their faith for comfort, and made contact with Kids and Cars, joining other bereaved parents to lobby lawmakers to pass the federal safety bill. In honor of Adrianna, they started their own website, adriannasrule.com.
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As they learned more about back-over accidents, the Clemenses found that backup precaution technology — sensors and wide-range cameras — has been available to car manufacturers since the mid-1990s. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that sensors and cameras began to be offered as standard features on high-end models. On less-expensive vehicles from brands such as Toyota, Honda and Subaru, sensors and cameras are still typically offered as options — and range in price from as little as a few hundred dollars for sensors alone to $8,000 or more for a package complete with a camera.
Most auto companies do not refer to the devices as safety features. “These are parking aids,” says Bob Yakushi, director of product safety for Nissan, North America. “They aren’t a substitute for looking around when you back up. One question for parents is, Do you know where your children are?”
Bill and Adriann Nelson cuddle with their children (clockwise from top), Heidi, Sonia and Derek, on their backyard deck.
Alan Adler, safety spokesperson for GM, adds, “We think the devices have some value, but you can’t rely on them alone. Safety is also a matter of personal responsibility and visual inspection.”
Says Consumer Reports auto safety test expert David Champion, “Auto manufacturers don’t want to call them safety devices, because if they fail — and they will, because even with the best cameras, there’s not 100 percent visibility — they could be held liable.”
David Clemens insists that had he and his wife known that backup safety technology was available when they bought their 2003 Infiniti SUV, they would have “purchased it in a heartbeat.” As a result, in 2004, the Clemenses filed a civil suit against Nissan, the parent company of Infiniti, but lost the case when the court ruled that “Nissan was neither negligent nor misrepresented their product.”
Shortly thereafter, Rachel filed for divorce, and the couple began living apart. Last fall, they got back together and are attempting to work things out. “We’re trying to move on,” says Rachel.
To date, more than 40 members of both the House and Senate have signed on as cosponsors of the Cameron Gulbransen Kids and Cars bill. Senator Hillary Clinton plans to reintroduce it this year.
Back in Dix Hills, Heidi Nelson was born in February 2005. “She’s a blessing,” says Adriann. “She’s a little clone of Alec, so happy and easygoing.”
Alfred Raschdorf agrees. “Alec always came running to me with his arms open, and Heidi is the same. She is not a replacement for Alec, but she has helped everyone feel more alive.”
This June, another Nelson baby is due. Then, when people ask the Nelsons about their family, Bill will tell them, “We have four wonderful children here with us, and another one in heaven.
Last year was busy, and very productive.
We met with Senator Hillary Clinton, who along with John Sununu (R) New Hampshire, agreed to be co-sponsors of the
Cameron Gulbransen Transportation Act which will hopefully give auto manufacturers the push they need to make cars safer
for their littlest passengers.
We, along with Kids and Cars, scored a victory when legislation was passed that requires data collection for anybody killed in a non-crash, non-traffic incident.
With these statistics in hand, the manufacturers will be forced to take notice that it is a manufacturing problem, not negligent parents, grandparents, caregivers, strangers, everyone in the wrong place at the worst time.
We will continue to fight for legislation until rear mounted cameras are standard on all vehicles. The price of many safety measures is less than that of a cd player, a roof rack, leather seats. What price will people pay for safer cars for their children?
We paid the ultimate price, and are working to make sure no other parents know the agony of burying their child.
Visit kidsandcars.org to see the work being done on children’s behalf.