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In Sorrow, Teen's Family Is United

St. Petersburg Times
Thomas C. Tobin

TAMPA — The family of Rebecca McKinney called it “the accident.” Their attorney called it “this family’s horror.”

Whatever the description, Rebecca’s death after exiting a Pinellas school bus in 2004 has forever changed her family.

Sally McKinney will forever replay the vision of her 16-year-old daughter crumpled on the pavement, the girl’s big sister and a friend holding her, stroking her hair as paramedics arrived. It visits her daily and makes her feel helpless all over again.

Yet the family that remains grows closer. They are two parents in their 40s and three children at the dawn of adulthood. They talk more, appreciate each other more — so much so that Sally McKinney never wants it to end.

“Mary is 21 years old and I don’t want to lose her. Doug is 18. I don’t want him to ever leave home but I know he’s going to. Jimmy — it’s time for him to start thinking about moving out too. He’s 17 and graduating and moving on and I don’t want my children to leave home any more. … I’m afraid to let them go.”

The McKinneys spoke Wednesday for the first time since Rebecca’s death and the litigation that began several months later, ending Tuesday with the School Board’s approval of a $1.1-million settlement. While much is known of the accident and how it exposed serious problems with the Pinellas school bus system, the family has generally kept to itself.

But in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times at the offices of their Tampa lawyer, Steve Yerrid, they opened up. They spoke of their sorrow, their searing recollections, their memories of Rebecca, their gratitude to those who helped, even their plans for the money.

A modest family from Clearwater, they plan to finally pay tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills that remain from Rebecca’s three-day stay at Bayfront Medical Center, where the family removed life support.

They also plan to fix the air conditioning system in their home, which broke shortly before Rebecca was killed. “I haven’t had air conditioning since,” said Sally McKinney, who sat with her husband, James, and their daughter, Mary, who witnessed the accident.

Sally, 43, works for a finance company tracking debtors who leave town. James, 47, works in the produce department at Publix. Mary, who, like her brothers, missed a year of school after the accident, is considering a career in cosmetology.

The settlement “is going to help us overcome an obstacle that we’ve had,” said Sally Mc­Kinney, who did most of the talking. “But it’s not going to change us. We’re still the McKinneys.”

Lawyers will receive 25 percent of the settlement. Yerrid said the family decided against seeking more from the Legislature, satisfied that the school district had reformed its bus system and given them enough money to patch their lives back together.

The lawsuit alleged that the district improperly placed Rebecca’s bus stop on the wrong side of busy McMullen-Booth Road and ignored the family’s requests that it be relocated. Rebecca was hit as she tried to cross the road.

In perhaps her most surprising comments, considering the sometimes contentious tone of the litigation, Sally McKinney had praise for the school system and superintendent Clayton Wilcox.

She thanked the superintendent and added: “I kind of hope with the lawsuit and the litigation behind us that Dr. Wilcox will work with the McKinney family” to change state laws.

She said Florida’s school bus laws are antiquated and do not provide a steep enough fine for drivers who run school bus stop arms.

Current law assesses a $100 fine for failing to stop for a school bus and $200 if the driver passes on the side where students exit. Second offenses within five years can bring license suspensions of 90 days to one year.

McKinney called for a $1,000 fine and an automatic six-month suspension. “People would sit up and take notice,” she said. “People still pass bus arms. & They don’t think about children.”

She said Rebecca dreamed of being a mermaid at Weeki Wachee Springs ever since she visited the attraction at age 10. Someone told her she could be a mermaid there when she turned 18.

From the time she was an infant, she loved the water, joining the swim team at Clearwater High. She loved the 50-meter freestyle.

“Just jump in the water and go. That was my child,” Sally McKinney said.

If you were upset, Rebecca tried to cheer you up, and she stuck up for her friends when her mother tried to judge them.

“She had such an open mind,” Sally McKinney remembers now. “She was probably the biggest ray of sunshine anybody ever met.”

On afternoon of the accident, Oct. 8, 2004, Sally and James McKinney were at home when Mary called on someone’s cell phone, screaming.

Sally could not understand her. Then a woman came on and said, “Your daughter’s been hit.”

Sally and James raced to scene in their van.

“She was crumpled on the pavement,” Sally McKinney said, sobbing. “I couldn’t even help her. I couldn’t help my little girl.”

A police officer and friend drove the family to the hospital and told them it didn’t look good. Sally McKinney didn’t believe it until she saw the chaplain at the door.

The rest is a blur — the doctors, the procedures, at some point knowing Rebecca was gone and finally removing her from life support.

And there is gratitude.

Sally McKinney will never forget the parents, teachers, administrators and students who showed up at the hospital. “I think half of Clearwater High School was there.”

It bothers her that she never thanked the scores who donated to a fund that paid for funeral expenses and helped keep the family going while she missed four months of work.

“We would not have been able to survive without them,” Sally McKinney said. “And I want to thank them for my entire family.”

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