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'I wish we could have her back'

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An inside look at one family's tragedy

July 22, 2001

Joe Scranton pushes his palm into his daughter's chest and breathes into her mouth.

"Don't go," Scranton begs his little girl. "Fight! Come back!"

Hailey looks up at her father and vomits water.

She gasps for breath.

"My daughter's dying!" Susie Scranton screams to a 911 dispatcher. "I can't believe it. Please hurry."

Joe keeps pumping on Hailey's chest. Blowing into her mouth. He wants so badly to do something for his baby. Get her heart going. Get her breathing regularly again. Something.

"Please, God. Please, God. Please," Susie sobs into the phone.

"I didn't think we were going to lose her," Joe said later. "I really thought she was going to make it the whole time."

Hailey Scranton was the eighth child to drown in Phoenix this year. She was 20 months old when she died June 3.

Susie Scranton closes her eyes and sees Hailey, hands on her knees, shaking her bottom. She sees the way she moved her hands while bouncing to the beat of her favorite Disney song. She sees her clomping around in other people's shoes.

Always, Hailey is smiling. That beautiful, dimpled smile.

"I feel like I see her more when I'm sleeping," Susie says. "She dances with me."

Nine days after Hailey drowned, Susie is finding comfort in sleep. Sometimes 20 hours a day. When she's asleep, she doesn't have to deal with the pain.

A lot of Hailey's things, the clothes, the toys, the pictures, have been tucked away for now. Except for the heart-shaped basket that holds her first rattle, first pacifier and the Sesame Street cars that sat atop her first birthday cake. There is a toy saxophone, Hailey's favorite doll, the one with the pastel hearts, and the first blanket, pink with satin trim.

Susie sleeps with the doll and the blanket. For days after Hailey drowned, she could still smell her on the blanket. But that's gone now, too.

She can't stop re-living that day.

It is Sunday, and Hailey wakes up first and dumps a bag of cereal on Mom. When that doesn't wake Susie, Hailey smashes a packet of graham crackers on her head.

Hailey always finds interesting ways to wake up Mom. Sometimes she pours milk on her face, dumps shampoo on her dry hair and rubs it in, or whacks her in the head with a toy. Every once in awhile, Susie wakes up with Hailey sleeping next to her, in a pile of potato chip crumbs.

They are staying at Hailey's grandfather's house in west Phoenix. The day before, a water pipe burst in their Glendale home. The swamp cooler wasn't working, either. When Susie got home from work that evening, it was cooler outside than in.

But this Sunday morning at Grandpa's is a good one. Mom and daughter play and read books, take a bath and dress. Hailey colors two pictures and watches The Emperor's New Groove.

Three days before, Hailey had learned to say, "I love you." It is remarkably clear.

"I love you," she says over and over and over, giving more than the usual number of big, open-mouthed kisses.

On the phone, Susie talks to Hailey's grandmother, Robin Brown, about enrolling Hailey in dance lessons. Brown, who lives in north Phoenix, also suggests swimming lessons this summer. Hailey has been drawn to water since she was a baby. Susie can't even count all the nights she fell asleep with Hailey in the bathroom, listening to the sound of running water. It was the only thing that comforted the child.

Remember, Brown says, to keep the front door closed. There's no gate to the back yard.

I know, Susie says, "I've had to close it many times already today because somebody keeps opening it."

Hailey keeps bringing her shoes to Susie, as if she wants to go somewhere. At about 1Ęp.m., they head to the mall to meet a friend. Joe stays home, playing video games.

At the mall, Hailey bolts into a shoe store and falls in love with a pair of sandals with pink and blue flowers. Hailey is obsessed with shoes. Everybody's shoes. So, rather than face a tantrum, Susie buys the sandals. Size 5*.

"Rooooaaaaar!" Susie growls on the floor to Hailey when they get home. Hailey shrieks in delight and runs.

Mike Brown stands in the back yard of his Phoenix hom, next to the pool where his granddaughter, Hailey, died. The chain-link fence was erected after her drowning. Brown says he does not like to go into the yard now, and has let the pool fall into disrepair. "It just really hurts to be out here," he says.

Hailey goes back and forth between Mom and Dad. More big, open-mouthed kisses.

Susie goes to the bathroom.

Hailey usually follows her, but this time she stays in the bedroom with Dad. Hailey loves video games so much that her father gave Hailey her own controller. It doesn't work, but she doesn't know that. She thinks she is playing the game with him.

When Hailey walks out of the room, Joe doesn't pay attention. It's unusual for him.

He's always worried something will happen to Hailey. Worried about swimming pools. Worried that she'll get stung by a scorpion. Just worried. Not for any particular reason. Just something he feels in his gut. He chalks it up to being protective.

But there seems to be no reason to worry on this day. Hailey's probably gone to look for Mom.

"Where's Hailey?" Susie asks when she comes out of the bathroom.

"Who left the door open?"

Barely breathing

The board lights up at Phoenix Fire Station 25 at 5:52 p.m. The crew gets excited. Usually when the whole board lights up, it's a fire, and firefighters live for fires.

Then the drowning tones sound.

"Deja vu," Capt. Dan Donahue thinks. It has been only three weeks since his crew was out on another drowning. Two-year-old Jamilah Roland died.

In the truck, Donahue flips through his cheat sheet of pediatric drug doses. He turns to the page that tells him what size tube he'll need to stick into Hailey's gut to drain out the water.

A second engine crew gets to the house just ahead of Donahue's crew and takes over CPR from Hailey's father.

When Donahue, a paramedic, gets to Hailey, she is lying, pale and wet, on an ambulance gurney in the living room. He brings her out to the carport where there is more room to work on her.

Hailey has a pulse. She's breathing, barely. Maybe two, three, four breaths a minute.

"This is great," Donahue thinks to himself. "We're going to get this one back."

For just a second, Donahue sees the face of his own 4-year-old daughter. The two girls have the same forehead, the same nose. He pushes the image aside. He has a job to do, and he's not about to freeze up.

A tube goes down Hailey's throat and into her stomach. Donahue is pushing on her chest. His partner sticks another needle into the bone of her lower leg to get drugs quickly into her system.

Her heart rate is slow, 20-some beats per minute. Normally, the heart of a child this small would beat 100 to 120 times a minute.

Hailey doesn't respond to the drug, epinephrine, that is supposed to stimulate her heart, but she's still breathing, still has a pulse, and Donahue thinks she'll make it. He'd bet his paycheck on it.

Donahue continues pushing on Hailey's chest as he loads her onto a helicopter that has landed in the cul-de-sac right outside her house. He believes Hailey can hear him. And he whispers to her, hoping to comfort her:

"Have a nice trip."

The 30-minute drive

Sally Liddicoat can't make out what Susie is sobbing into the phone. Something about Hailey. Liddicoat, Susie's foster mom since she was 12, asks her to hand the phone to someone else.

"Hailey fell in the pool," says Mike Brown, Hailey's grandfather and Joe's stepfather.

Everything is spinning. Liddicoat drives toward the Brown home. She dials her cellphone, calling her church, a couple of friends. She wants people to pray for Hailey.

North 70th Avenue is blocked off with yellow tape at Campbell Avenue.

"That's when I lost it," Liddicoat says.

Susie Scranton had a hard time at Hailey's open-casket funeral. "You don't want to see your little girl, who you cared for and loved so much, sitting there," she said. "Everybody tells me she's happy and she has no pain. To me it loooked like she was sad and in pain." The family allowed this photo to be published to show the reality of a child's drowning.

Susie and Joe are already on the way to Phoenix Children's Hospital. Liddicoat goes, too. She barely remembers the 30-minute drive.

Just that morning at church, the minister spoke about children and how they are a gift from God and how God can take them back at any time.

Was that supposed to prepare her for this?

Some kind of mistake

Hailey is pronounced dead at 6:51 p.m.

We did everything we could, the doctor says. There was just too much water. I'm sure she didn't feel any pain.

The words are a blur to Susie. This can't be happening. There must be some mistake. Susie is sobbing. She can't breathe. Joe yells at the doctor: "Get out!"

In the hospital room 20 minutes later, Hailey is wrapped in a blanket with a new diaper. Her hair is still in pigtails.

Susie hugs her daughter tight and some of the air that was pushed into her lungs comes out. It sounds to Susie like Hailey's breathing.

"I was screaming for them to come back in here because they were wrong," Susie said later. "I was hoping they were wrong."

Hailey's fingers look a little blue. Susie plays with them, kisses her daughter, talks softly to her.

"Wake up. You're sleeping," she says. "Mommy's here now. Wake up. Everything's going to be OK."

Joe vomits.

"I just couldn't believe that she was gone, and there was nothing I could do," he says.

"Hailey, come out and play with me," Robin Brown sings to her granddaughter. "Climb up my apple tree. Slide down my cellar door. I'm sorry, Hailey, I cannot play with you. My dolly has the flu. Boo-hoo-hoo."

Hailey's obituary

That night, Mike Brown finds Hailey's pizza. She was eating it the last time he saw her, just before he sat down to take a nap. He was asleep when Hailey slipped past him and three young aunts inside the home.

There are little bite marks all around the pizza, and Mike tosses it in the trash.

"God, I ought to keep this," he says to himself.

"But it was only a piece of pizza with the pepperonis peeled off it," he says later. "The best thing you can keep is your mind, your memory."

Less than two miles away, Capt. Donahue is sitting around the table at Station 25 when Capt. Anthony Hernandez gets off the phone with the hospital.

"They stopped," Hernandez says. "They terminated resuscitation."

There is silence.


"God, you feel for them so much," Donahue says later. "I'm going to go home to my kids tomorrow, and that kid's never coming home."

He will remember her birth date for six or seven days. When Hailey's obituary is printed in the newspaper, someone will cut it out and tack it onto a bulletin board at the station.

That night, Donahue lies down in his bunk and asks God to take care of his family and his kids. He tells God that Hailey is coming.

"Let her in," he prays.

Seeing the beauty

Robert Gortarez has probably handled more than 500 dead children in his 16 years in the mortuary business. It never gets easy.

"You feel so much has been robbed from that child," the Phoenix funeral home owner says.

Gortarez is a friend of Hailey's grandparents, Sally and Mike Liddicoat. But he never met Hailey before he prepared her body for burial. She looks peaceful.

Gortarez makes the incision in Hailey's neck to embalm her and gently stitches it up afterward.

Then he dabs makeup on the girl's face and hands to even out her skin coloring. She doesn't need much.

Gortarez cradles Hailey in his hand and slips a new dress over her head. She is stiff. He is uncomfortable dressing children.

"The concept of firmness of the arms, the coldness of the body, you don't relate those things to a baby," he says. "You think of them being warm and soft."

He does her hair last. Pigtails. Gortarez has never done pigtails before, but he gets it right on the first try.

"When you're done, you look at them and you don't see your job. You see the person," Gortarez says. He swallows hard a couple of times.

"You feel it right here," he says, pointing to his chest. "One of those feelings that you wish they could have had more time here. As much ugliness as there is, there's a lot of beauty to be seen."

He isn't worried about Hailey. She's in a place where she doesn't need to be worried about. But he prays for her family.

"They will never know what she's like at 5 years old," he says. "They will never know what she's like at 15 years old. They will never have the opportunity to see her grow up or to attend her wedding or her high school graduation. Those things have been taken away from them."

Help them get through this tragedy, he prays. Help them find peace among themselves and with God.

A porcelain doll

Susie Scranton can't bring herself to go inside Northwest Christian Church. She can't bring herself to walk up the aisle and look at her daughter inside the casket.

"You don't want to see your little girl who you cared for and loved so much sitting there," Susie says. "Everybody tells me she's happy and she has no pain. To me it looked like she was sad and she was in pain."

Hailey is beautiful in a white dress with red roses on it. But it doesn't look like her. She looks like a porcelain doll.

"She looked like somebody I could bring home and set her up on my shelf and look at," Susie says.

"And that's when it sunk in. I'm never going to wake up to her, see her, bathe her, dress her. This was the last time, and that was the most painful part."

Susie Scranton looks for strength during Hailey's funeral. With her are Sally Liddicoat; her husband, Joe, and Joe's daughter, Sierra. "Susie and I always believed that Hailey was a gift from God to us," Joe said at the service.

Susie sits in front of her daughter and stares, sobbing, at the casket for the entire two-hour visitation. Disney Mambo No. 5, Hailey's favorite tune, plays over and over.

Joe fiddles with his daughter's dress, strokes her head. He bends over to kiss her. He is crying, too.

Graham cracker fishies

The stories are ones that would make you laugh if Hailey were alive because you could see her doing all these things. At her funeral, though, they bring tears.

Hailey loved to dress up and put on Mommy's makeup. She loved to look in the mirror. She loved to go bye-bye.

Remember the time she took her daddy's shaving cream, smeared it all over her face and then shaved with a toothbrush? Remember how she used to tap on the refrigerator to get a piece of cheese? And how she'd hide your keys if you put them somewhere where she could reach them? Remember all those noisy toys?

"Susie and I always believed that Hailey was a gift from God to us," Joe says slowly, trying to keep his composure.

Susie, 21, had been told since she was 16 that she couldn't have children. Hailey was a surprise, a blessing, a miracle.

"You know we believe that she was here to show us something, and there's a lot of things that she showed us," says Joe, 21. "I can remember so many times when she'd come in the room and I was having the worst day, and she'd smile and she'd give me a hug and just that little bit of affection from her made everything all right."

Susie walks up to the casket with a sippy cup full of graham cracker fishies, Hailey's favorite snack, a teddy bear and the bright green blanket that Hailey slept with every night. She and Joe kiss Hailey one last time and tuck her in.

"I'm sorry," Susie says to her little girl. "I love you. I'll see you soon."

Hailey's plot is in the children's section at the western edge of Holy Cross Cemetery in Avondale. Susie picked the spot because she wanted Hailey to be with other children.

"Now I lay me down to sleep," the minister prays just before the casket is lowered into the ground. "I pray the Lord my soul to keep. But if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take."

"No," Susie sobs. She can't bear to look at her daughter in the ground.

"She was my whole entire life," Susie says. "I feel so alone without her."

Too many memories

There can be no pain like this in all of the world.

It's the kind of pain that makes it nearly impossible for Susie to get out of bed in the morning. The kind of pain that won't let her take a shower for nearly three weeks unless Joe sits in the bathroom with her. The kind of pain that causes Joe to curl up with Hailey's doll one night and cry himself to sleep.

"If I could have tried just a little bit harder. If we could have found her just a little bit quicker," Joe says, "she would have made it. I felt like I tried as hard as I could, and it just wasn't good enough. I wasn't good enough. I couldn't do it."

Joe and Susie started dating when they were 16 years old and attending Trevor Browne High School. The relationship was ending three years later when Susie found out she was pregnant. They decided to marry and work things out.

Susie spent her pregnancy reading books about breastfeeding, child care, the best types of toys to buy. At night, she put headphones to her belly and played music because the research said it would make her baby smarter.

Now, she is attending a grief support group.

"I think what I'll miss is seeing Susie so happy," says Sally Liddicoat, Susie's foster mom. "The happiest I ever saw her was with Hailey."

Hailey's death seems to have brought Susie and Joe closer together than before. Rather than blaming each other, they are leaning on one another for support. For the time being, they are living with Joe's mother, Robin Brown. Susie can't go back to their Glendale home and face Hailey's room and all the memories. Soon, they'll move into a new apartment. It's as far from the pool as possible.

Susie thinks of all the times she watched stories on TV about children who drowned. "Stupid idiots," she'd say. "How could you have done that?" But she is one of "those people" now, and it's hard not to feel like a bad parent. It's hard to push away all the "what ifs."

"I was supposed to keep her from harm and look what happened. She's gone," Susie says. "If I could have just done one thing different, everything else would be different."

An unfixed fence

Mike Brown, Hailey's grandfather, couldn't even look at his back yard for the first week after Hailey drowned.

A month later, the pool is a deep green and the water level is dropping. The yellow police tape is still there. There's a temporary fence that the city put up. But Brown simply can't bring himself to go outside and do anything with the pool.

"It just really hurts to be out here," he says.

Shortly after Brown moved in more than 2* years ago, a sewer line broke and the perimeter fence came down to repair it. He has been meaning to fix it ever since. Because Brown's children are all older than 6, he wasn't required to have a separate pool fence.

He never really worried, though, about Hailey coming over to the house and slipping into the pool. She was never alone long enough.

Authorities aren't sure whether Hailey opened an unlocked back door or walked out an open front door, then through the broken fence and into the pool.

Still, Brown blames himself for not fixing the fence.

He cries every day. At night, his sleep is restless. He'd move if he could afford to.

He thinks a lot about the final minutes of Hailey's life, the anguish she must have felt, the panic.

"What comforts me," he says, "is knowing that she's up there somewhere in an afterlife."

Fresh dirt and a cross

"I know she's gone, but I don't think it's really set in that it's forever," Susie says. "It just seems like she's on vacation or something."

Susie has been to the cemetery three times in the first week since Hailey was buried. On the drive there, she tries to remember everything she can about Hailey. Her first words ("yum, yum"), her first tooth (at six months), the way she scribbled on pictures, thinking she was actually writing "Hailey."

"Hailey used to like to sit where I'm sitting and pretend she's driving," Susie says. "Sometimes she'd go get the keys and try to open the doors. I'd be laughing at her. She could never get it open."

Susie has a cross of pink, plastic flowers for Hailey's grave. And the stuffed bear that the Phoenix Fire Department left for her at the hospital, so she wouldn't be alone.

Susie fiddles with the dirt. It's still fresh. She kisses the bear and clenches her hands. She opens the book she has brought to read today, Good Night Baby Donald.

Susie brings a new book each time she visits. This one is a story Hailey's never heard before.

Believing in heaven

The minister at Christ's Church of the Valley is talking about prayer, about how suffering isn't a punishment.

Susie and Joe are finding solace in church. They've been attending services almost every Sunday since Hailey drowned. Neither of them was religious before, but somehow this feels right.

It helps to believe that Hailey is an angel, watching over them, that God needed her to touch someone else like she'd touched them.

"I never really believed in heaven," Susie says, "and I want to believe my little girl is up there with someone who's taking really good care of her. I don't want to believe she's just dead."

But the comforting thoughts disappear when Susie returns to their Glendale home for the first time after the drowning.

It has been almost three weeks, and still, Susie is knocked to her knees at the sight of Hailey's crib.

Eventually, she has to get up, has to begin packing. Hailey's things are going to the Crisis Nursery in Phoenix.

"I don't want to get rid of anything now," Susie says as she sorts through Hailey's clothes. "It's so hard. I see all her cute little outfits, and that's her. I see her bouncing around in them. But I know I can't keep them all."

Brown leather sandals and a pink bikini, her first frilly dress and a fleece jacket that Hailey hadn't even grown into are all packed into crates. Stuffed animals, a rubber ducky, the play telephones.

"You want all her stuff around you because she's always with you," Susie says, "But then there's times when you're alone and all you do is cry."

Susie picks up Hailey's Rock-N-Roll Elmo.

"Oh, her favorite toy that annoyed Mommy," she says. Hailey would play it again and again. Susie hated it.

She pushes the button. Nothing.

"I wish this would play."

Just one more day

From now on, everything will be memories. Every birthday, every holiday, every time somebody goes swimming will be a reminder of all they have lost.

Every time Susie or Joe fills out a credit application that asks the number of dependents. Every time they run into an old friend who asks if they have children.

Susie will never be the tooth fairy. Joe will never know if his little girl would have cried when he took her to her first day of school. He always wondered about that.

Joe sees a mother walking across the street with her little girl when he is driving to work. The girl is a little older than Hailey. She looks right at Joe.

Joe fights the tears all day, then cries all the way home.

If I could just have one more day, he thinks. If I could have just known it was coming.

"I'd just hold her," Joe says. All day long.

He replays his favorite memories over and over in his mind until he's certain he remembers every detail. The only thing he can't remember any more is the sound of Hailey's voice.

He talks to her every day.

"I tried," he tells her. "I'm sorry."

"I wish we could have her back."

Reproduced with permission from:
The Arizona Republic
By Judi Villa
©Copyright 2001 Arizona Republic

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