WESLEY CHAPEL — Kellie Sischo saw the sign on the door and started crying. She takes her children to Kids 'R' Kids day care in Wesley Chapel and, like the nearly 200 other parents whose children stay there, Sischo knew Tabatha well.
The sign didn't say what happened, it just said:
3/13/1990 — 5/5/2008
You always will be part of Kids 'R' Kids Family
Tabatha, 18, died Monday afternoon along with her friend, Kristin Gaskin, 17, when their car flipped on Interstate 75, just north of State Road 54.
Both girls were seniors at Wesley Chapel High School, a month away from graduation.
Their principal, Andy Frelick, said the two were inseparable, eating lunch together and hanging out. There are 500 students in their senior class, but they stood out and were well-known and liked. A crisis team at the school Tuesday met with a steady flow of grieving students who might otherwise have been excited about their prom Saturday.
Wesley Chapel High has waded through so much grief in these past few years. Frelick said the school has lost at least 17 students to tragedy since he became principal in 1999. In August, the senior class also lost Matthew Laidley to a car crash. The driver, Adam Sanford, and another passenger, Katelin Kaiser, also seniors, suffered severe injuries.
Frelick has welcomed safety classes at the school to hammer reality into his students' heads. He will have another one Friday.
"I feel like Sisyphus, pushing that rock up," he said.
Frelick said many students came to him Tuesday with a feeling that the school is cursed.
"Why us?" they asked.
Tabatha's family lives in Wesley Chapel and Kristin's family lives in San Antonio. Both girls had jobs and took classes online, so they were permitted to leave school earlier than most students. Tabatha was driving her 2002 Mitsubishi Eclipse north on the interstate at 1 p.m. when she lost control. The car slid off on the east shoulder and hit some trees before flipping and coming to a rest on its roof. The Florida Highway Patrol, which still is investigating the crash, has released few details.
Kristin worked at Tijuana Flats on State Road 56 and planned to attend Pasco Hernando Community College this fall and then transfer to a university. She wanted to be a psychologist. Tabatha worked at Kids 'R' Kids until a few months ago, when she took some time off to focus on school and prepare for college. She still baby-sat most evenings and she often showed up at Kids 'R' Kids to say "hello."
"She made people smile without even trying," said Sischo, as she sat in the day care's lobby.
Owner Anitha Thomas said parents had been crying all day.
Tabatha first applied for a job there when she was 16, but was too young. Staffers have to be 17. So, the day before her 17th birthday, Tabatha showed up again at the day care and said, "I'm turning 17. When can I start?"
Thomas said she was impressed by Tabatha's energy and gumption. Tabatha loved children, and they loved her.
"She had a good heart," Thomas said. "And a good spirit."
Thomas sent a letter home to parents, but Tuesday afternoon was still dreading breaking the news to her 9-year-old daughter, Amy, who adored Tabatha.
Frelick also sent a letter home with students, alerting them to the tragedy and letting them know that the school is there to help.
The girls will still graduate. Their families will receive the diplomas. Tabatha's family was not available on Tuesday. A day earlier, her sister, Syeeta, 15, said the two of them went bowling Sunday with their brother, Nathaniel, 16. Syeeta said Tabatha planned on going to college in Miami and working on a career in journalism. Her colleagues at the day care said she had been awarded a full scholarship to the University of Miami.
At Kristin's house, her mother, father and sister were still in shock from the accident. They had all just returned from a cruise to the Bahamas on Friday.
They said Kristin was a homebody until recently, when she began to feel her independence. Her curfew was midnight and she left the house around 7 a.m., for school and work. She was busy and so excited about graduation.
Kristin and her sister Heather, 22, a pharmacy student at PHCC, both lived at home with their parents and planned on getting an apartment nearby.
When her mom, Becky Gaskin, would tell her to be careful and to not ride in cars with other kids, Kristin kept telling her mom to ease up, that she's nearly 18.
"Mom, you hold me too tight," she'd say. "When are you going to let go?"
And at their kitchen table Tuesday, her mother sobbed and said, "Never, Kristin, never.
"I'll hold you tight for the rest of my life."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4609.