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'Family is everything': Grandparents left raising 2 children who lost parents in Sardine crash

HYRUM, Cache County — No matter the day or time, 6-year-old Kylee Andersen always knows where her parents are. When asked, she looks up and points to the ceiling or sky. "They're on a cloud," she says without hesitation. "They can fly. They're lucky."

"And they love you very much," adds grandma Brenda Thurston, as she smoothes Kylee's blond hair.

The bundle of energy can't stay still for long and after a quick hug, leaps off Grandma's lap to get her photo album.

Sitting on the floor in her room adorned with "High School Musical" posters, Kylee flips through baby picture after baby picture.

"There's Mom holding me," she says, pointing to one photo.

"That's my dad's arm," she says about another.

Her 3-year-old brother, Jaxon, doesn't want to be left out, so he scrambles into his room next door and comes back with his photo book.

"Oh, just look at me," he says excitedly. "I'm just a little baby."

With blond hair and light brown eyes, Jaxon looks like his dad, Curtis, especially when he smiles, says his grandpa Lynn Thurston.

And those who knew their mother, Tami, as a child say Kylee looks just like her mom, Brenda says.

Photos, a few home videos and a shed full of holiday decorations are all that Kylee and Jaxon have left from their parents, Tami and Curtis Andersen, both 28, who were hit and killed in a car accident a year and a half ago in Sardine Canyon.

"People say the first year is the worst and then it gets better," Lynn says, his voice thick with emotion. "I don't feel any better today than I did that day."

But the Thurstons are still going, having picked up where their daughter and son-in-law were forced to stop.

Their story is not an easy one, but they share it willingly, hoping to increase awareness of the dangers of drowsy driving so no one else has to go through this "horrible, horrible thing," Brenda says. "(This) is going to affect us and these little kids forever and ever."

"We're just not young like we used to be," adds Lynn, who has become a T-ball coach, elementary school chauffeur and bedtime story teller all over again. "We've had a lot of good help, but it's tough. It's not what we thought retirement would be."

It was late Friday, Dec. 5, 2008, when the Thurstons got the news.

Tami and Curtis had been driving home to Nibley from Salt Lake City where Kylee had danced in the Festival of Trees.

Just beyond Mantua, police say an 18-year-old Utah State University student must have dozed off and drifted across the lanes, smashing into the Andersens' green Jeep.

Tami and Curtis were killed, as was 9-year-old Hannah Roach, who had befriended Kylee while visiting her grandfather, who lived next door to the Andersens in Nibley.

Jaxon escaped relatively unscathed, and the student, Robert Hoggan, received facial lacerations.

Kylee wasn't so lucky. She broke her femur, tibia, ankle, arm and bruised her spleen, requiring several weeks in a purple, full-body cast. There was also a deep gash in her head, which required several staples to close and left doctors worried about brain damage.

But at the hospital, her uncle Brady asked her, "Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?"

Her immediate answer was reassuring: "SpongeBob SquarePants."

That night changed everything for the Thurstons.

Along with adopting the two children, they, and the Roach family, joined forces with the "Sleep Smart Drive Smart" campaign, a division of Utah's Zero Fatalities program, to speak out against drowsy driving.

"I just don't want people to forget about Tami and Curtis and what happened to them and these kids," Brenda says.

So they deliver a somber message. Driving, having not slept for 20 hours, is comparable to having a blood-alcohol level of .08, said Brent Wilhite, a representative of Utah's Sleep Smart Drive Smart Task Force. The problem is that not enough people see their tiredness as an impairment.

"Here is a grandma and grandpa ready to retire, (now) taking care of young kids just because someone fell asleep," Wilhite said. "It was a preventable crash, and it happens too often."

Since 2006, Utah has averaged 1,220 crashes and 32 deaths a year that can be chalked up to drowsy driving, according to the Sleep Smart Drive Smart website.

But prosecuting sleepy driving is difficult, because unlike texting or talking on the phone, there's often no real evidence, said Box Elder's deputy county attorney Kirk Morgan, who handled the case against the young driver.

Morgan said Hoggan was a bright student at USU with a spotless record.

"There was nothing that we could put our finger on saying he should have known better and that he would have been drowsy that day driving," Morgan said.

Hoggan represented himself and immediately agreed to plead guilty to the class C misdemeanor of careless driving, Morgan said. He was sentenced to 100 hours of community service during a year of probation.

The service hours were acceptable, but the Thurston and Roach families say they were frustrated that Hoggan kept his driver's license.

"People need to remember that driving is a privilege," said Hannah's mother, Melea Roach. "If we impinge on (other's rights), we need to lose that privilege."

Hannah's grandmother Marilyn Rockwell worked with Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, on SB170, which passed this year, giving judges power to order the revocation of an individual's license for a year if their reckless or drowsy driving causes a death.

"He didn't mean to kill anybody; he didn't do it intentionally," Melea Roach said. "It happened as a mistake that he made, but ... I absolutely think he should be out there speaking. I just feel like he's just gone on with life as normal, and none of the rest of us have."

The families said they hoped Hoggan would have gotten involved with the Sleep Smart Drive Smart campaign to help them spread the message.

Morgan met with Hoggan and his parents several times and said any perceived lack of remorse from Hoggan could be attributed to his shyness. Hoggan did not return a request for comment.

"From my interaction ... he was definitely very concerned," Morgan said. "I don't think he has anything but remorse and sorrow for what took place."

The first time at the hospital that Lynn and Brenda tried to tell Kylee her parents were gone, she didn't understand. But the second time, she began to cry.

"Did they want to leave me?" she asked.

"No, no, they didn't want to leave you," Brenda assured her. "They love you very much."

But they all still cried.

Except Jaxon. He was too young to understand what was going on but soon began repeating bits of what he had heard.

"I wish I had a mommy and daddy that weren't dead," he'd say, or, "I wish Mommy and Daddy would come to our house."

"I guess he's thinking, you show me pictures, why don't they come over?" Brenda says. "It's hard. Their mom and dad ... did so much with them."

Both children are doing well in counseling, and Kylee is finding it easier to talk about her parents now. She says she remembers her mom taking her to Lagoon and how they did each other's hair. Her dad jumped on the trampoline with her and took her fishing at Bear Lake.

"When we go fishing, we caught some fish," Jaxon says his face stretching into a grin. "I caught a fish, and it was flopping. And I ate it, and I didn't like it."

Now, it is Grandma and Grandpa who plan the fishing trips, braid Kylee's hair and teach the kids how to play T-ball.

On a recent Saturday, Kylee and Jaxon are the epitome of energy, running in and out of the house and showing off their new T-ball outfits.

Kylee models her "Sea Dog" shirt and hat, and Jaxon dances around in his purple "River Heights T-ball" ensemble.

It's the first time either one has held a bat, but Jaxon's first two swings are straight and centered, and the ball races across the grass in the backyard.

"Hey batta, batta," he calls out like an old pro before he winds up and clonks the plastic stand, giggling as Grandpa steadies it and sets up another ball.

Kylee calls for Grandma to watch before she slams one nearly to the edge of the yard. Jaxon is so excited, Lynn has to frequently pull him away from Kylee's swinging bat.

Watching them play, there's no evidence of sadness or trauma, but Brenda still worries about them growing up without a mom and dad. She and Lynn shower them with love and attention, and they have aunts, uncles, cousins and Andersen grandparents nearby, but at 62 and 61 years old, Lynn just hopes he and Brenda will be around long enough to see the two graduate.

After batting practice, the kids come inside and scamper off to their toys, while Grandma and Grandpa catch their breath in the living room filled with photographs and reassuring plaques.

"Grandkids = love," reads one. "Faith makes things possible ... not easy," is another. "Family is Everything."

And for the Thurstons, it really is.

"It's good in a way," Brenda says, "If I didn't have them to keep me busy, it would have been hard. It is hard — it's been really, really hard. But I've been so busy, I don't have a lot of time to really think about how much I miss Tami."

e-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com