The stunned feeling of awful news suddenly, miraculously, becomes something different but equally powerful.
By STEVE THOMPSON
Published September 27, 2003
ZEPHYRHILLS - When a state trooper told them Chloe was dead, Tom Cardina and his wife fell to the ground at the roadside.
His wife, Diane, collapsed first and let out a long, agonized sob. Then Tom fell over her, to cover her, to try somehow to protect her from the sorrow.
Chloe, their 2-year-old granddaughter, had been in a wreck. Their daughter Nicole, 23, also had been hurt. She was being flown by helicopter to the hospital.
Get a grip, Tom Cardina told himself. He knew Chloe's sister would soon be getting off a school bus nearby. They would have to pick her up.
At the bus stop the Cardinas tried to seem cheerful. "Where's Sissy? Where's Mommy?" asked the 5-year-old. They didn't tell her.
They dropped her off with family friends who also were devastated by the news. Then the Cardinas telephoned their two sons, one in Orlando and one in Texas. "You've got to come home. Chloe's dead," Tom told them.
Desperately, he and Diane fought rush hour traffic to get from Zephyrhills to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa. As they inched from stop light to stop light, they had no cell phone. They were stuck inside the car with only each other and their grief.
"It was terrible," he said later. "You can only imagine." Tom, 54, had to pause, his voice caught, as he spoke of that afternoon, Friday, Sept. 19.
After a frantic search for a parking space, Tom gave up and parked illegally. Diane got out before him and ran for the hospital's emergency room. She was kneeling at the door, crying, when he got there. Friends of their daughter were standing around her.
"Chloe's all right. She's alive. We've seen her," Tom heard someone say. For a moment, he thought it must have been his daughter who had died.
But neither, as it turned out, had even been seriously hurt.
A hospital official led Tom and Diane into a room. Chloe was there, playing on the bed. It wasn't joy or elation that Tom felt at first. He felt more of a dizziness, an exhaustion, as he kissed and held his 2-year-old granddaughter, making sure she was really there.
Chloe had a knot on her head and received seven stitches to her face. Nicole had a fat lip and bruises from her seat belt.
The wreck happened where Otis Allen Road meets Cass Road. Terry W. Pergerson, 39, of Bougainvillea Avenue was making a left turn in a minivan, the crash report said. He pulled out in front of Nicole Cardina's Jeep sport utility vehicle.
An FHP radio dispatcher had told state trooper Kenneth Boatright that the little girl was dead. The Cardinas arrived at the crash seen soon afterward. A friend of theirs who happened on the wreck had called them.
When the Cardinas identified themselves to Boatright, he told them Chloe was dead.
"It was my job to tell them," he said. "It was not a job I wanted to do, but it was a job that had to be done."
Ninety minutes after the crash, Boatright still was at the scene when a dispatcher radioed him: There had been a mixup. Chloe was alive.
By this time the Cardinas were on their way to the hospital.
"I felt horrible," Boatright said. "I just wanted to go home after that."
Boatright lost his best friend in a car wreck. "I know what it's like to get that news," he said. "It's not good news."
The mixup about Chloe apparently happened during a conversation between Boatright's radio dispatcher and a hospital official, according to FHP spokesman Lt. Sterling King.
The hospital official told the dispatcher the girl was "stable." The dispatcher thought he heard "fatal."
The dispatcher has since resigned. King said he did not know whether the resignation was related to the mistake.
It was the first time he had heard of anything like this happening, King said.
In what officials said was an unrelated mixup that evening of Sept. 19, the FHP issued a news release indicating that Pergerson had died in the crash. In fact, he suffered only minor injuries.
As the Times prepared a small story the following day about Pergerson's purported death, a reporter called the FHP for more information. Lt. Harold Frear explained that no one in the crash had, in fact, been killed.