Father once saved both daughters, but can't prevent crash that took one at 16

WEEKI WACHEE

Daniel Moran's light hazel eyes, tired and hollow, drifted across the dark cherrywood top of the living room table. Between his thumb and index finger, he clenched a quarter-sized metal guardian angel.

His home was full that recent warm, sunny morning. His dogs — Autumn, Summer and Mason — barked and wrestled in the back yard. His sister and brother-in-law, in town from Philadelphia to celebrate his 60th birthday, topped off their cups of coffee as others walked in and out from the back patio.

Moran, at times, didn't seem to notice them. Just days before, a judge had given a five-year prison sentence to the man who took his daughter's life.

The guardian angel is a reminder of Moran's youngest daughter, Jenna Marie, killed 2 1/2 years ago on a nondescript stretch of Hexam Road.

The shackled 40-year-old man who caused the accident apologized, but Moran wouldn't forgive him. He couldn't.

On a rainy night years ago, he had saved his two daughters' lives from one fatal wreck. But for Jenna, his baby, he couldn't do it a second time.

• • •

His story, the one that led him to that living room table, started with an 18-year-old blond waiter in Philadelphia named Dolores.

"Dee," he called her, was thin and about 5 feet 7. He liked her smile and her quirky laugh. People thought it was fake, but it wasn't. She talked to everyone at the bar, but he never minded.

"It just clicked," he said. "We were like best friends."

Most of all, they shared the nightlife. The couple lived beneath dim lights and between hard drinks in the haze of Philadelphia's early mornings.

That changed when they had their first daughter, Carissa, now 23, and then Jenna four years later. Moran and Dee moved to Weeki Wachee, committed to starting a new life.

Money got tight, though, and Dee started serving again and slipped back into the old lifestyle. The marriage became strained and the couple separated.

One evening 17 years ago, Moran and Dee met at the Bayport Inn to pick up the girls. He could tell his wife had been drinking. Moran, who was friends with the owner, hid his kids inside a hotel room. He told her they were gone, so she left.

Minutes later, the 28-year-old's car slid off a wet stretch of Cortez Boulevard and struck a tree. She died at the scene.

The days after the crash are little more than a blank spot in his memory. He'd lost the woman he loved, but he'd saved his two daughters.

"I look back on it a lot," he said, "and I thank God I didn't let them go with her."

• • •

"Beau" to people who know him, Moran has a round chest and a rounder waist. He was a Coors Light man for years, but more recently he has taken up Yuengling. Hints from his native Philadelphia seep through his words, even after years of living in Florida. His hair has grayed, but his eyebrows are as dark and bushy as caterpillars.

After his wife died, he took his daughters to regular mothers club meetings around Hernando. He was the only father there.

On Father's Day — and on Mother's Day — his girls bought him cards.

He married again, but it only lasted a few years. Throughout, he said, Jenna and Carissa were his priority.

In his mind, he can still see Jenna dancing and making silly faces and calling him "Bebop," for a reason he never knew.

Jenna, just a moment ago, curled up on the couch beside him to watch Happy Days and Hannah Montana or one of his favorites, like CSI or a Rays baseball game.

Moran described the rendition of Joe Cocker's You are So Beautiful to Me that he and Jenna once sang to each other.

"You are so ugly to me," Moran, laughing, recalled. "You're everything I hated."

For years while they were young, he'd tease his girls that he loved them but didn't like them.

"I used to go, 'Hey, Jenna, do I like you?' " he remembered. "She'd say, 'No, dad. I don't like you either . . . but I love youuuu.'"

• • •

On Sept. 24, 2008, Moran got a knock at his front door. Jenna had been in an accident. Arriving at the parking lot at Central High School, he could see her strapped into the stretcher as medics hoisted her into the helicopter.

Someone held him back. He couldn't reach her.

Moran never told his daughter goodbye.

William Brooks — a man with prescription medication coursing through his system — was driving a truck that had crossed the center line and slammed head-on into Jenna's 1992 Nissan Maxima as she drove home from school.

At St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, doctors told him Jenna had suffered severe brain damage. She might live, they said, but would never be the same. Moran, knowing his daughter, decided to let her go.

"That's the worst decision you ever have to make in your life," he said, "to pull the plug on your daughter."

Fourteen years after he saved Jenna that evening at the Bayport Inn, Moran could do nothing.

Now, her remains sit in a gold urn on a shelf in his living room. From a party seven months before her death, Jenna's pink and black "Sweet Sixteen" birthday crown rests atop the vessel.

He walks by and talks to her every day. He teases and tells her "funny things." Sometimes, without noticing, he still speaks about her in the present tense.

He's angry that Jenna never went to the prom or on spring break and senior week trips with her friends. He sobbed after attending the graduation at which she would have received her diploma.

"I was robbed," he said. "Everyone who knew her was robbed."

Any time Moran leaves the house, he pins on his shirt the metal guardian angel that reminds him of her. He has been through more than 15 of them since she died.

• • •

Painted onto a piece of wood no larger than a postcard, a single four-letter word enclosed in a heart is tacked to the beige wall next to his front door.

"Live," it says.

He enjoys his job at Sherwood Florist and would work 12 hours a day if he could. When the flowers he delivers draw a smile from someone, it makes him happy.

In some ways, though, he's ready for change.

Soon, he wants to travel more on his own. Meet new people.

He hasn't read a book all the way through in years, maybe since high school. He sees other people reading, and it looks nice. A sandy beach in the Florida Keys, Moran figures, would be a fine place to pick up the hobby.

He likes the heat down there. And if the book bores him, he'll pull up to a bar somewhere and find some strangers and share a few stories.

"I think," he said, "it'd be peaceful."

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or jcox@sptimes.com. News researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this story.

Father once saved both daughters, but can't prevent crash that took one at 16 03/31/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 31, 2011 6:37pm]

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