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A parent’s worst nightmare, a community in tears after Haverford YMCA death | Maria Panaritis

The death of a 2-year-old girl in the Haverford YMCA parking lot just days before Thanksgiving has traumatized one of the Philadelphia area's most family-filled communities. Life can be cruel, and unpredictably so.

Erin, Julie and Miriam Rebbechi (left to right), Zahara Shapiro (top)  and daughter Aliyah Shapiro at a Tuesday night vigil in Paddock Park for a toddler struck and killed at a nearby YMCA parking lot.
Erin, Julie and Miriam Rebbechi (left to right), Zahara Shapiro (top) and daughter Aliyah Shapiro at a Tuesday night vigil in Paddock Park for a toddler struck and killed at a nearby YMCA parking lot.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

They were there, men and women holding candles and hot chocolate in the wintry cold of a darkened playground in Haverford Township, because the 2-year-old girl who died in the YMCA parking lot a block away could have been their own.

They were there — moms and dads, children and childless adults, and workers of the YMCA itself — even the woman who mops the shower floors during Saturday-morning swim lessons. All had trudged through the crunchy autumn leaves of Paddock Park to stand beneath a moonlit sky, shoulder to shoulder, in the heart of Havertown.

They had come to pray, because that seemed the only thing anyone could do.

Many were strangers. All were there for a 27-month-old girl most had never met. For a 34-year-old mother who had noticed a moment too late that her tot had wandered away from the family car on Saturday afternoon, and been struck by an SUV pulling into another spot.

They were there, too, for the driver, a 59-year-old man who police said had pulled into the YMCA for a workout but left devastated — "as shook up as anybody could be," in Police Chief John Viola's own words to me.

The YMCA had closed at 7 for the Tuesday-night vigil and cordoned off the spot in its busy parking lot where the accident had happened. Traffic cones and a small chair with flowers and stuffed animals marked the space where the little girl lost her life around lunchtime on a busy Saturday at one of Pennsylvania's busiest YMCAs. A bench by the front door overflowed with toys and flowers, too. A little girl leaving the Y with her mom asked about the bench.

"Because somebody got hurt," the woman said, gripping the girl and her older sister as she shepherded them toward their own car in the lot. "Come on, girlie girls."

A viewing for the child, identified by police as Lindsay Pham Vo, was held Tuesday night, ahead of a planned Wednesday Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Manoa.

Beyond the devastation of her mother and father, there has been shattering grief across the community. A shuddering reminder that life can be so cruel to anyone at any time. That parenting itself is a high-wire act that can go haywire more often than any parent can afford to admit.

From the very moment a child is born, you spend millions of infinitesimally small moments trying to keep that little creature safe. No one tells you this until you have a kid, but life actually slows down as you learn, minute by minute, to feed the nonspeaking infant. To read the child's mind and call the doctor when something seems wrong. To make sure the child doesn't drown in the bathtub. Doesn't tumble down the steps. Doesn't choke on a piece of cheese.

The child makes it to school age, and still — there is worry, worry, worry. What happened in that parking lot is a version of every parent's worst nightmare.

"This is Molly," Jaime DiZio told me beneath a small park pavilion lit by candles and a few donated lights plugged into a generator. Jaime is 44, a mom of three. Molly, 8, is her youngest and the only one with her. "I told her I brought her here because I needed someone's hand to hold."

Why come to this vigil, I asked?

"I just wanted to support the family," Jaime told me. "It hits very close to home. It could happen to any family."

But why for a stranger? I wanted to understand more deeply what was going through this parent's heart.

Jaime began to cry.

"I have a daughter who had cancer. She survived. She's doing wonderfully," she said, her voice buckling with every other word. "Just being so close to loss; I've stared down that path many times. I can only imagine what this mother is going through. She's been on my mind.

"It just makes you want to wrap your arms around your family extra tight." Jaime pulled her daughter close.

On happier days, this park is crowded with hundreds of children whose parents schlep them over for everyone-wins-a-prize running races. Kids as little as 2 toddle toward the finish line in what is quite possibly one of the cutest things you'll ever see on a Sunday afternoon.

This park is in the heart of a suburban Philadelphia town brimming with young families. Older residents in recent years have sold their modest twins and singles to newcomers. Schools are at capacity. The Y is in the geographic center of town, crowded with 27,000 members because it serves the Main Line, Upper Darby, Broomall, and many other communities.

We unfortunately lost a child through a tragic accident on Saturday. As a life affirming and life giving organization,…

Posted by Haverford Area YMCA on Monday, November 19, 2018

Many people were at the Y when Lindsay was struck. One of them, a man perhaps in his 60s, walked into police headquarters on Monday and found the chief. But not to offer a witness account.

Rather, this man had lost his own child 15 years ago in a bicycle collision. Chief Viola had investigated that tragedy. The man was reliving his child's death all over again.

"He was pretty emotional," Viola told me. "He just wanted to talk to somebody."

Joe Leopold, whom I met at the vigil with his 4-year-old son, Jacob, and 5-year-old daughter, Eva, had been at the Y during the accident. He has a 28-month-old daughter, too — same age as Lindsay.

"I had trouble sleeping that night," Joe said.

One can only imagine the depth of suffering in the hearts of Lindsay's parents. Hearts that must be crushed by the cruelty of it all.