Kelly Brubaker was fiercely protective of her 9-year-old son, Chase. She lost her other son eight years ago, and Chase was her and her husband's only child. The three did everything together.
On Thursday afternoon, during the family's first trip to Walt Disney World, Chase was struck and killed by a resort bus while riding his bike with a friend at Fort Wilderness. The couple returned to their Redington Beach home later that night, nearly numb with shock and too distraught to process the pain.
"He was my world," said Kelly Brubaker, 50. "I can't believe this happened at Disney."
By Friday morning, their grief mixed with anger as they tried to piece together the tragedy. No one at Disney had called them yet, they said, and they were beginning to doubt the Florida Highway Patrol's report that suggested Chase was at fault.
"They said he went into the road, but that's a lie," said Barbara Burkett, the boy's maternal grandmother, who went to the accident scene. "There was no reason for him to go into the road."
Said Kelly Brubaker, between sobs: "Disney World has some explaining to do."
As they waited for answers, they struggled to digest a life without Chase.
• • •
Chase, a third-grader at Bauder Elementary in Largo, was no daredevil, his parents said. He didn't like roller coasters, always wore his bike helmet and put himself in timeout when he thought he did something bad.
So they believed Chase's best friend, the 11-year-old girl who rode with him, witnessed the crash and ran to the family's RV swearing that Chase did nothing wrong.
"The first thing she said was, 'Kelly, we were on the sidewalk. He did not run into that bus,' " Kelly Brubaker recalled outside her home Friday morning.
Before Thursday, the couple rode their own bikes with Chase and his friend to ensure the safety of the trail, which led to a pool and other activities. They didn't see how Chase could possibly have made the mistake of veering off the sidewalk.
But that's what Florida Highway Patrol investigators say he did.
Trooper reports said the children and the bus were southbound on Big Bend Drive in the Fort Wilderness Resort area when Chase apparently tried to look back, then drifted off the sidewalk and hit the middle of the bus.
He was knocked off his bike and pulled under the right rear tire, troopers said.
Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Kim Montes said she understands the family's grief, being a mother herself. The investigation is ongoing, but based on what investigators knew as of Friday, she did not believe the bus veered into the boy.
"If we didn't have the physical evidence or witness statements that we had, we wouldn't make such a statement," she said.
Disney officials issued a statement expressing condolences for the Brubakers' loss but gave no further details.
Both Chase and his friend were wearing helmets. The girl, whom the Brubakers declined to identify, was uninjured. There were 28 people on the bus.
Bus driver David Rich, 56, has worked for Disney for 30 years. No charges have been filed, Montes said.
Burkett, Kelly Brubaker's mother who vacationed with the family at Disney, said tire tracks were worn into the grass near the accident site, suggesting that buses and other vehicles often veered off the road.
Brubaker pointed to the boy's little blue bike, which she and her husband brought home. It appeared to be in good condition, with only the right brake bent.
• • •
Chase was a baby when Kelly Brubaker lost her other son, 25-year-old Thomas Ryan Hartman, in 2002. Hartman's body was found floating in the Gulf of Mexico off St. Pete Beach. Police said it was an accident.
Two years later, Brubaker's sister died from a brain hemorrhage. But losing Chase, his mother said, was "the worst."
On Friday, neighbors, relatives and friends streamed in and out of the Brubakers' home on Redington Drive. One friend, Gwen Novak, cried as she approached the home.
"All this suffering for Kelly," she said, hugging Burkett. "Is there a God?"
Friends and family described Kelly Brubaker as a very protective mother, and Chase as a loving child who adored his mother and constantly called her "beautiful." Six months ago, the family adopted a golden retriever named Annie, who followed the boy everywhere.
The family was excited to finally visit Disney World and until Thursday, Chase kept saying each day was the best day of his life.
"One of the best days of our life turned into the worst," Dick Brubaker said. "The world lost a good one. Chase was special."
Kelly Brubaker said she tried to contact Disney World several times Friday and kept getting a recording. She thought police got frustrated with her when she asked questions Thursday.
"I just need to know what happened," she said. "What mother wouldn't want to know what happened?"
Times researcher Will Short Gorham contributed to this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8452.