Take a moment, think back to your childhood, which superhero did you look up to? Superman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, or Batman? These are a few of the many who provided children with dreams, excitement and an overall source of release to be in their young, creative and growing minds.
Dalen Thomas loved Superman, regularly wearing blue and red, in admiration of the hero. Could superheroes have been the strength that helped him through his struggles as a young boy? Struggles is not a word we express lightly as we explain the journey of Dalen’s life. Born with cytomegalovirus (CMV), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), high functioning autism, deaf in his right ear, blind in his right eye, and undergoing 10 surgeries before Kindergarten; he experienced and overcame more in his short life than some will ever see in their lives. He was happy and full of life, a real Superhero, through his strength and positive outlook.
Tragically, Dalen’s life was taken from him on Oct. 31, 2018, Halloween morning. Dalen’s sister Kylie, who he called Sissy, drew a black spider on the front of his hand. He raced to show his mamma just how cool his spider was, with excitement preparing to be Spiderman for Halloween.
As Dalen proceeded to leave his family home for the last time, he shared his traditional goodbye hug with his mamma and heard those beautiful words from a mother’s mouth; I love you. Dalen, with excitement, said, “I love you, mamma,” and kissed her on the cheek; the final kiss she would ever share with her little man. Dalen’s sister stayed home that day, and Dalen left to his great grandfather’s house to reach his school bus.
At 6:35 a.m., Jeremy, Dalen’s father, who worked for Pratts Fire Department, received a notification of an accident, realizing his home address was on the alert, he and Miranda, Dalen’s mother, rushed home as fast as they could. Upon arrival, they saw Dalen’s great grandfather on the ground, holding their sweet boys head in his hands, lifeless.
Dalen’s bus was equipped to safety regulations, and the bus had followed all protocol to prepare for Dalen’s journey across the highway to get onto the bus. In a split second as Dalen’s foot stepped six inches over the white line, the bus horn started to honk rapidly, his great grandfather lunged to grab his backpack, risking his own life, but it was too late. Dalen’s 45-pound body was hit by the right passenger headlight of a pick-up truck, launching his body 57 feet.
The man (a father of two) who hit Dalen passed two cars, which had slowed down for the bus, and he then continued to approach the bus head-on, claiming he thought he was approaching a tractor and was in a hurry to get to work to use the washroom. The driver’s car was not equipped with a black box, removing the evidence of his speed. Highway patrols ran tests, and the school bus was visible up to ¾ of a mile, during the time of the accident.
Tragically, the bus driver passed away two months after the accident, from a massive heart attack, due to severe post-traumatic stress disorder from the accident.
After three hours of CPR, Dalen was stable enough to be transported by helicopter to Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis. Miranda and Jeremy drove hours to the hospital, full of hope and fear. Upon arrival, they were escorted to the fifth floor, where the doctor was waiting for them. In her husband’s arms, Miranda dropped to the ground screaming, after hearing those dreaded words, “I am so sorry, we did everything we could.”
During their final goodbye, Miranda gently took the hand of her cold and lifeless son, looking for the black spider on his hand, which had since been washed away.
On the day of Dalen’s funeral, the whole town stopped, and the rainy streets were lined like a parade. Dalen’s casket was wrapped in a batman blanket, traveled to his graveside on top of a fire truck, which was led by over 200 motorcycles.
Two weeks before his death, Miranda took a photo of Dalen with a double rainbow. The rainstorm stopped at the end of the graveside service, and a rare double rainbow appeared. This was Dalen’s way of telling everyone he was ok.
The funeral was held in Dalen’s school gymnasium, and people wore blue t-shirts with his special superman logo on the front. For Dalen’s birthday the following year, friends and family gathered at the school in May with the same superman t-shirts. Dalen’s best friend wore a batman cape and wiped tears from his face as he revealed a beautiful, blue, metal bench with the words “fly high little buddy, our superhero Dalen,” which resides in the front of the school to this day. Congress also assigned two miles of highway in his memory.
Possessing the beautiful gift of intuition and compassion, Dalen was connected to the people around him. Dealing with the superpowers he was born with, he learned to overcome pain and practice mind over matter, all the while never feeling sorry for himself. He had and still has a way of making everyone around him feel special and cared for. To this day, “it feels like a light in the classroom went out,” expressed by one of his teachers. Past classmates still randomly shout out Dalen’s favorite phrases – “nailed it” and “boo-yah!”
Spiderman Dalen shot his last web from his palm on Oct 31, 2018, and flew 57 feet. We would like to imagine Dalen found peace knowing he was living like a real superhero during that preventable and tragic moment. We await this Spring’s first rainstorm, so we can see a double rainbow to share with Dalen.
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On average, there are 128 school bus fatalities and 85 thousand bus crash-related injuries, according to the 2017 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) School bus Transportation-Related Crashes Survey. There are reportedly over 17 million stop-arm violations annually, as stated in the 2019 National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) National Stop Arm Violation Survey.
These are the horrifying statistics behind what should be the safest journey for our kids. If you could be part of the change to student safety, would you? First Light’s patent-pending Illuminated School Bus Sign and Fully Illuminated Stop Arm are designed to perform in the harshest weather conditions and be seen at greater distances and aim to eliminate stop-arm violations, making the journey to and from school safer for our kids.
We cannot bring the hundreds of kids like Dalen back, but we can turn their families’ pain into power and fight for them. It is our responsibility to protect our kids. They cannot make these changes, but we can. Together, we can change the future of safety for our kids, one bus at a time.
Michelle Macario is the Marketing Specialist at First Light Safety Products