September 21, 2018
It has been almost 7 years since Dan Sperry lost his stepdaughter, Makayla, when a motorist hit and killed her after she had disembarked her school bus and began to cross the road toward the front door of her family’s home in Fremont County, Wyoming. Despite the time that has passed since the tragedy, the events of December 20, 2011 are still clear in Dan’s mind.
The day started off like any other. The 8-member household was humming as Dan and his three sons, and his wife, Melissa, her three daughters got ready for the day. The morning air was foggy and frost hugged the branches of trees in their remote community. A light dusting of snow had fallen overnight and blanketed the ground. A fresh start to a new day.
At 7:35 am, Makayla boarded her bus that would take her the 35 miles she needed to travel to get to school. It wasn’t a typical Tuesday for Makayla and her classmates; the anticipation and excitement of the upcoming winter break passed through the school like electricity. The school was also hosting a dance at the end of the school day-the talk of the halls for a group of 6th grade students. When classes wrapped up for the day, Makayla called her mom to ask if she could stay late to attend the middle school dance with her friend, Heather. Melissa granted permission and told Makayla she would see her later that evening. This was the last time Melissa would ever hear her eldest daughter’s voice.
At 6:00 pm Makayla climbed aboard the school’s modified late bus that ran for kids who needed to stay after school for activities. By this time, the winter sun had already started to set. It would be dark by the time the bus reached Makayla’s stop on its evening route.
Dan had the day off from his duty as a police officer and cooked dinner that night. As the family was getting settled in to eat, they heard the hiss of brakes and saw the flashing warning lights of a stopping school bus, signalling that Makayla would be walking through the front door at any minute. Makayla’s stepbrother, Brenden, hopped up to unlock the front door for her arrival. Shortly after, a deafening smack like a basketball hitting the hood of a car demanded the family’s attention. Dan thought the sound could have come from the stop arm slapping back against the side of the bus in the wind. Moments later there was frantic pounding on their front door. On the other side was a young boy and classmate of Makayla’s, whom she had shared a dance with that evening.
“Your daughter’s been hit! Makayla’s been hit!”
Dan and Melissa bolted outside to find their 11-year-old girl in a mangled, twisted mess. The void and glassy look in Makayla’s open eyes confirmed what Dan had feared: their sweet Makayla was already gone. Melissa was hysterical and pleaded with Dan to save her daughter. Dan’s hopeless attempt to revive Makayla with CPR revealed the extensive damage that the collision did to her small, fragile body.
The car that struck Makayla had approached from the opposite direction of the bus at a speed of 57 out of the allowed 65 mph. An investigation into the crash would show that the motorist did not apply the brakes until his vehicle made contact with Makayla. The motorist testified seeing the amber and red flashing lights on the bus but failed to yield because he assumed it was a semitruck or another large vehicle pulled over on the side of the road, as none of the school bus’s identifying markings were visible in the dim December light.
Dan strongly believes that if the bus had been outfitted with modern equipment like First Light Safety Products’ Illuminated Destination Sign, which enables the bus to be seen in low light and dangerous weather conditions, Makayla might still be alive today. On a rural road like the one where Makayla took her last steps, the motorist would have had over 1,000 feet of visibility to acknowledge and react to the school bus’s warning lights.
With the support of his family and community, Dan now shares Makayla’s story with school districts, drivers, and decision makers across North America in hopes of inspiring change that will make school transportation safer, and hopefully save the life of a child like Makayla. Innovative products like First Light’s Illuminated Destination Sign provide the tools necessary to promote positive change.
Dan and his family were not the only ones impacted by Makayla’s untimely death. The entire community grieved the loss of a classmate, student, neighbour, teammate, and friend. Moved by the tragic accident, Makayla’s peers pushed lawmakers to pass a new bill that requires stop arm cameras on all school buses-existing and new- in the state of Wyoming.
Makayla is not just a name or a statistic, she was someone to a lot of people. A drop that had a ripple effect on an entire community and is still making waves today. While Dan knows there is nothing he can do to bring her back, he hopes sharing her story will help other kids get home to their families safe and alive.
To learn more about Makayla’s story, visit www.makaylastory.com.