Nobody can say what Ireland Nugent will remember. • Even a young child's memory can be marked lastingly by trauma, psychologists believe, like a strip of silver-halide film exposed to sunlight. One day the 2-year-old girl might recall the sirens, the screams, the weeping woman who knelt beside her and held her hand.
But if she is lucky, Ireland will remember nothing. After the lawn mower accident that left a smiling toddler with a crown of brown ringlets cruelly maimed, this small piece of luck — oblivion — was one thing for which her stricken parents could realistically hope.
"She's 2," Nicole Nugent, her mother, told a throng of reporters gathered at Tampa General Hospital on Thursday afternoon. "(It will be) kind of hard to even grasp what happened to her. I think even when she wakes up, she's not going to realize."
Ireland may not remember that her legs were once whole.
Palm Harbor residents and friends of the Nugents struggled to come to terms Thursday with the tragedy that took place at the family's home Wednesday night. According to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, Jerry Nugent, Ireland's father, accidentally backed his riding lawn mower over Ireland, severing both her legs below the knees and cutting open one of her hands.
Speaking beside her church pastor at a news conference at Tampa General, Nicole Nugent, her voice steady, said Ireland was riding toys in the family's back yard before the accident and decided to run after her dad as he drove the mower toward the garage around 7:30 p.m.
Seeing the child, Nicole waved to her husband to stop. He thought she said to back up. When he put the machine in reverse, Ireland was caught in the blades.
Mild spring weather Wednesday had drawn children outdoors to their back yards and swimming pools, and the neighborhood was alive with voices and laughter, neighbor Ruth Lucidi recalled. She said those noises ended with the terrible, grinding sound of a stuck machine.
Then the screams. Lucidi's son-in-law, Troy Finch, who lives next door, could make out words.
How did I do that? How did I do that?
Lucidi ran down the street and found Ireland sprawled on the ground, already in shock, her hand cut open and her feet gone. She knelt and grasped the girl's good hand, and tried to ask her simple questions to distract her from her own shattered body.
What's your dog's name? Do you have a big sister?
The girl only responded with a question of her own:
Where are my legs?
"She's a tiny little thing," Lucidi said, her eyes filling with tears. She said she was fond of all the Nugent girls, but particularly Ireland, a boisterous child who liked Lucidi's dogs.
Other neighbors, one of them a nurse, streamed toward the family's ranch-style stucco home at 560 Hollow Ridge Road, in a quiet Palm Harbor subdivision. As they waited for paramedics, Lucidi asked someone to fetch a plastic bag filled with ice. Inside they placed something they found on the ground that looked like part of Ireland's foot.
"You will never know how devastating this is. You won't," Lucidi said. "It happened to such good parents. That's what's so bad. You know, you always think, 'How could someone leave the door open? Stupid parent.' I will never think that thought again about anybody. I will never judge. Because I was there this time."
Emergency workers arrived. The girl was bandaged and sedated, staring at her helpers with wide, uncomprehending eyes. She was put on a helicopter to Tampa General, where she remained in serious condition Thursday. She has already undergone two surgeries, with two more scheduled for Saturday and Monday, Nicole Nugent said.
The fact that Ireland's legs were lost below the knee joints gives doctors hope that she will adapt quickly to prosthetics, her mother said. Steve Chamberland of the Palm Harbor-based organization 50 Legs, which helps provide prosthetic limbs for child amputees, said his group has already committed to find first-rate prosthetic devices for Ireland.
"Once I saw her and saw she still had color, she was still my daughter, it absolutely gave me a sense of relief," Nicole Nugent said. "We can fix her legs. And she will walk again and run again and be just as spunky as she was. She is just full of personality. She will tell you what she wants when she wants it. If anybody is going to get through this, it will be her."
As she spoke, her husband stood behind her, grasping her shoulders and staring off with vacant, red-rimmed eyes. The couple have four children together, including Ireland.
"He's not holding up as (well) as I am," Nicole Nugent said. "But he's getting there."
Ireland might not remember the accident that took her feet. There is little chance that her parents will be so fortunate.
The kind of accident they endured is rare, but not unheard of. Child injuries from lawn mowers have occurred often enough that in 2003 the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission created a requirement that new riding lawn mowers have a feature that disables their spinning blades when they move in reverse. Nicole Nugent said Thursday that the family's mower is an older model that does not appear to have this safety feature.
Paramedics treated both parents for hysteria on Wednesday night. Mental health experts say it was likely the first step in a tortuous process of grief and self-recrimination.
"I've seen it first hand," said Dr. Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. "They are in shock. They don't know what to think. The guilt is unbelievable. It's so difficult for them, and these are usually good parents and relatives who do everything they can for their families. These accidents affect the whole family for many years to come."
Tammy Alsing, a mental health counselor who oversees the adult bereavement and children's programs at LifePath Hospice in Tampa, said coming to terms with an accident that severely disables a child is similar in some ways to the grieving process endured by the parents of a child who dies.
"They will grieve all of the things that they envisioned her doing as a completely able-bodied child with two legs, and without this traumatic event," Alsing said. "They will grieve that future for her."
Jerry Nugent is a U.S. Navy veteran. He works for Pinellas County's real estate management office in facilities maintenance, according to the county's human resources department.
Efforts were under way Thursday to help the Nugents' cope with the financial and personal cost of the accident.
At Stellie Bellie's, a resale boutique for children's clothing in Palm Harbor, children and parents had begun scribbling hearts and notes to Ireland across a banner that read, "Your City Loves You!!" Owner Stella Myers said she hoped it would be covered in messages by the time Ireland returned home, when it would be used to welcome her.
Trinity Presbyterian Church in Clearwater, which the Nugents attend, established an Ireland Nugent Fund to help the family with medical bills and other expenses in the aftermath of the accident.
At the news conference Thursday, Nicole Nugent said her religious faith has helped sustain her. "I believe that God is in everything," she said. Facing the cameras, she was remarkable in her composure.
"I have to be strong for my daughter," she said. "I'm sad, but she needs me more than I need to be sad right now."
Once, her voice caught.
"I'm questioning why that wasn't me," she said, her assurance momentarily melting into the frightened stare of a parent whose child's life had been irrevocably changed. "Why it had to be her."
Times staff writers Jodie Tillman, Letitia Stein, Irene Maher and Meredith Rutland and news researchers Carolyn Edds and Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.