PLANT CITY — The woman who was driving the minivan that ran over and killed her 2-year-old great-granddaughter shook with grief Thursday as she asked a judge to be reunited with the two other children in her care who call her "Mama."
Alice Barber, 69, struggled to tell the court the terrible details of how Izbella Bronson fell through the open door of the van.
"I would die in Izbella's place if I could," Barber told the judge, gasping through tears. "I have to live with what I did. I didn't know. I didn't mean to … I would give my life for her if I could."
Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Caroline Tesche said Wednesday's events were a "horrible accident," but her job was to create a healing environment for Barber and the young girl's two brothers, who are now in foster care.
Barber had driven Izbella to pick up her brothers from a school bus stop Wednesday when the 2-year-old, who was sitting on the floor of the 2008 Kia Sedona, fell out an open door and under the van's rear wheel, authorities said. She was airlifted to Tampa General Hospital, where she died from her injuries.
Deputies went to the house Wednesday night and removed the two boys, who are 6 and 8. Barber said she's concerned with how the boys are coping with the loss of their sister and being separated from their family.
She told the court how she worked to create a loving home for the three kids. Church on Sundays, a tutor for their school work. She had plans to take them to the YMCA.
"All I want for my boys is for them to grow up to be honest, decent citizens," Barber said. "And above all, I want them to know they are loved."
In an interview before the hearing, Barber told the Tampa Bay Times she is angry with comments from law enforcement and community members who say she endangered the children.
"I should not have done what I did, but I can't believe anybody would think I would do something to harm these children," Barber said. "It was just an accident … and I'm the one that has to live with it."
Authorities are not likely to file charges, Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spokesman Larry McKinnon said.
"There's nothing illegal about transporting people on their own private property, unless there's some type of gross misconduct," McKinnon said.
If someone was intoxicated or driving recklessly, they could be charged with manslaughter, McKinnon said.
"In this case, there's no signs of impairment or that she was operating the vehicle recklessly," he said. "It appears she hit a bump, and it was enough to knock the little girl out of the car."
Wednesday started out just like any other school day, Barber told the Times. As 2:30 p.m. approached, she went to her minivan to pick up the boys. Izbella asked to come with her. So the two drove down the dirt road and waited for the school bus.
When the boys arrived, one ran down the driveway on his own as the other got in the back of the van. Izbella, thrilled to see her brother, asked to ride in back with him.
"I told him, 'You hold on to her,' " Barber said.
Every other day, the kids would be wearing seat belts, she said. Barber said if she would start to drive without wearing her own seat belt, Izbella would chide her.
"She was 2, going on 7," she said.
But the kids had never sat on the floor in the back like that, Barber said.
"It wasn't a wise decision I made, but I don't know anyone who has never made a mistake in their lives," she said.
Grief was palpable in the courtroom Thursday as the judge set out a visitation plan for Barber and the two boys. They would spend two hours together that afternoon and again on Sunday. A hearing next week will help determine whether the boys can return to their home, or if they'll stay in foster care or with another family member.
Judge Tesche also recommended grief counseling and other services for the family.
"I do not want to make it any worse than it is, because Lord knows this is the worst it can be," Tesche told Barber. "I want you to be as strong as you can, and remain emotionally strong for these boys. They need you to do that."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.