BROOKSVILLE — The headlights of a pickup bore down on Kaitlyn Harper as she walked to a school bus stop in the predawn darkness Tuesday.
Two friends screamed at the 13-year-old to get out of the street, but Kaitlyn didn't hear them. The southbound 1991 Dodge truck knocked her far into the right of way along California Street.
Danielle Walker, 15, and Kristina Urig, 12, witnessed the gruesome scene, including Harper's labored breaths as she was whisked to Brooksville Regional Hospital, where she later died.
"It was like watching a horror movie," Walker said, as she and Urig returned to the accident site in the afternoon. "Once you see something like that, it's hard to think about anything else."
More than 50 people, including Hernando school superintendent Wayne Alexander, gathered at the bus stop Tuesday evening for a candlelight vigil. Grieving classmates, parents and neighbors brought stuffed animals and flowers to place around a freshly planted wooden cross, which read "RIP Kaitlyn Harper. 1995-2008. We Love U."
Harper's mother, Evelyn Harper-Cannova, was welcomed to the gathering with dozens of hugs and solemn words of support. Her face streaked with tears, Harper-Cannova softly declined to comment.
Authorities don't know why Kaitlyn, an eighth-grader at West Hernando Middle School, was walking along the edge of the two-lane road southwest of Brooksville in rural Hernando County. Her scheduled bus stop is nearly a mile away, but her bus does pick up children at stops along California Street.
There are no street lights or sidewalks along California, which has a posted speed limit of 50 mph and is bounded on one side by modest mobile homes and on the other by pastures of grazing cattle.
School district transportation director Linda Smith said Kaitlyn's brother got on the bus at Wolf and Powell roads, east of the accident scene, but Kaitlyn walked to the stop on California.
"I don't think she typically does that," Smith said. "She has a stop at the end of her street. That's the one she was normally using."
The accident occurred about 6:45 a.m., roughly 30 minutes before sunrise. Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Steve Gaskins believed visibility was low, but it has not yet been determined if that was a factor in the accident.
Mark Buel, 52, of Brooksville was driving south on California when he struck Kaitlyn with the right front side of the truck. Buel, who told the FHP that he did not see the girl, has not been charged in the accident, Gaskins said. "He was cooperative and distraught," he said.
Buel declined comment through a woman who answered the phone at his home Tuesday.
Hernando school officials on Tuesday spoke of finding ways to improve safety along California and other roads that currently lack sidewalks for warnings of school bus stops.
School Board member Charles "Pat" Fagan said the district should set aside extra money for signs. "We definitely need to take a look at it as an emergency measure," he said.
School Board chairwoman Sandra Nicholson said the board has little power over the speed limits or lack of sidewalks, but should consider installing bus stop warnings immediately.
"I think more needs to be done," Nicholson said. "People need to know that there are kids down there. It's not a good situation."
Back at her mother's home, only a few blocks away, Kaitlyn's grandmother wistfully remembered a sassy teenager who loved to tussle with her brothers, ages 12 and 14, and play with the horses, billy goats, llamas and donkeys on her family's sprawling ranch. She also had a deeply creative side, painting, drawing, reading and writing short stories about dragons and wizards.
"Katy was so full of life . . . like a fresh breeze," said Juanita Hillerud, her eyes still red from sobbing. "She was just a free spirit, a beautiful girl. But she could also whip anyone's (butt)."
Kaitlyn's mother was devastated. She had recently made a complete recovery from Stage 4 cervical cancer, Hillerud said, and was looking forward to spending more time with her three kids.
"Then to be slapped in the face with something like this," Hillerud said, "let's just say that she's not doing well."
Kaitlyn's friends Walker and Urig returned to the site of the accident after only a couple of hours at school. They placed three teddy bears and a candle holder at the base of a telephone pole and palm tree, only a few feet from the spot where they last saw their friend.
Walker and Urig both soberly recalled the events of that morning, when they heard a sickening thud and then saw Buel jump out of his truck and rush to the side of the dying girl.
"Everyone kept telling us that she was okay," Urig said. "But we know that they're supposed to tell us that."
Tom Marshall and Luis Perez contributed to this report. Joel Anderson can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 754-6120.