Correction to This Article
This article about Kelly Murray and her daughter Sloane, who were killed when a tree branch fell on the family minivan, misstated the age of Sloane's friend Kiersten Pels. She is 11, not 7.
With the Crash of a Branch, They Lost Their Supermom
Family, Friends Mourn Chevy Chase Woman and Child

By James Hohmann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 4, 2009

If it had only taken a few moments more to herd seven wet children into the silver Toyota Sienna minivan. If one of the girls had announced that her sandal was missing and a couple of minutes had been spent retrieving it. If the summer storm that hit Connecticut Avenue had managed to gum up traffic a bit more.

But the sudden torrent loosed a massive branch from a 44-inch-wide red oak, the branch struck the minivan and now some anonymous soul has placed a refrigerator on Sean and Kelly Murray's front step. Neighbors and friends are filling it with dinners and love because it is the only thing they know to do. A mystery donor came by during the funeral to mow the lawn, trim the hedges and sweep the driveway. To do something, anything; to find meaning in the random, solace amid the impossible.

Four hundred people signed up online to be able to bring the Murrays -- the father and the surviving five daughters -- meals or help out with the housekeeping. Professors at the college where Kelly taught counseling are asking students to soak in the lessons of her life. Thousands of people, touched by one woman, are finding one another even after she's gone.

On June 23, in her penultimate post on her Facebook page, Kelly Murray announced that she was in a very rare moment: "in a very quiet house . . . what do I do with myself?"

A friend suggested she sunbathe, nap and drink a cocktail.

"I could totally have eaten bon bons and missed my opportunity," Kelly replied. "Tomorrow I will do something strictly for myself and enjoy it!"

She died 80 hours later. She was 40. Her daughter Sloane was 7.

* * *

Heading south into Chevy Chase on Connecticut in the middle lane, Kelly Murray was passing Columbia Country Club. Collision reconstruction specialists with the Montgomery County police think heavy rains and lightning prompted her to slow to 15 to 20 mph as she approached a green light.

She was more than halfway home from the pool, a 2.6-mile drive she had made countless times. It was the night before a swim meet, and about 70 parents and children had shown up for the picnic and pep rally. The Chevy Chase Recreational Association's Stingrays club chowed down on macaroni and cheese, rigatoni and sausage, and watermelon. Kelly served Caesar salad. She offered a choice: croutons or no croutons.

When the sky turned ominous, parents scurried to clean up and get going. Seven kids packed into the Murray car. Sloane sat on the lap of family friend Olivia Loome, 11, on the right side of the second of the van's three rows.

The red oak tree near the intersection with East-West Highway had shown no outward signs of rot or disease, said a spokeswoman for the Maryland State Highway Administration.

Olivia remembers hearing the two-foot-wide branch snap before it hit the car.

The initial dispatch went out to county fire and rescue units at 7:23 p.m. Tree on vehicle, people trapped, live electrical lines.

Firefighters arriving at the scene didn't know that a 10-month-old had been pulled from her car seat by a passerby who stopped to see what he could do. The men in uniform didn't learn until a few minutes later that a passing motorist had pulled four children through the van's shattered back window.

A rescuer told Battalion Chief Bob Stephan that two people were pinned inside the minivan and that another was trapped. It took 25 minutes for workers using power chain saws and a hydraulic lift to raise the branch and extricate Olivia. The two pinned victims, Kelly and Sloane, were dead.

Kelly Murray was Supermom and Everymom. A former Navy officer who received tenure a year ago at the Loyola College Graduate Center in Columbia, she was a practicing psychologist who, with her husband, was raising six children. She coached a youth soccer team and organized an annual camp to bolster girls' self-esteem. She jogged regularly, taking pride in staying fit after giving birth last year. And she was the one who showed everyone else how to grieve.

About a week after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Murray was invited to the White House to counsel federal employees. Her husband, then the administrator of the White House medical unit, knew she could help.

One of her specialties was post-traumatic stress disorder. Years before, she had worked with soldiers who had been in combat. More recently, she had published two chapters in handbooks for school counselors about post-traumatic stress in children.

The night before she died, Kelly brought all six of her daughters to Kiersten Pels's house in Bethesda. It was an end-of-the-season soccer party, and Kiersten, 7, was one of Sloane Murray's best friends.

Some of the girls got to playing with the family's guinea pig, Cinnamon. The pet got loose and crawled under the backyard shed. Adults tried to grab the animal but couldn't reach far enough. In the morning, Cinnamon was found dead.

Kiersten's grandmother tried to reassure her by saying that God might have needed Cinnamon in heaven for another little girl to play with.

The next morning, they learned of Sloane's death.

Kiersten told her father: "Sloane is holding Cinnamon in heaven."

"There's a meaning in that from God," said Jon Pels, Kiersten's father. "I just can't figure out what it is."

Monsignor John J. Enzler, pastor of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Chevy Chase, D.C., where the Murrays and 3,300 other Catholic families worship, knows that almost "every mom in that congregation drives, literally, two or three times a day right past that tree. Why is it that a storm comes when Kelly is right there? That part I don't comprehend."

When the Murray girls' grandfather died, Sloane wrote him messages and attached them to balloons. So at the end of a prayer service at the church Monday night, each family was encouraged to write a message on an index card. They tied their cards to ribbons streaming from pink balloons. Seventy-two hours after the accident, 85 balloons rose from a too-silent playground.

Most of the balloons quickly floated out of view. One got caught in the branches of a tree; six children came together to shake it free.

* * *

In her eight years at Loyola, Kelly was a professor of pastoral counseling, helped devise a certificate program in spirituality and trauma, and taught hundreds of master's and doctoral students.

In the days after the accident, e-mails streamed into Professor Sharon Cheston's in-box, students and former students searching for a path to understanding.

"I have to keep reminding them that they've learned about death and coping," said Cheston, Murray's mentor and next-door neighbor in the counseling department. "They have to feel it and experience it because someday they'll be sitting opposite a client who will be experiencing the exact same thing."

Murray's colleagues will pass on the lessons she taught, and next week some plan to meet at an Irish pub to share a pint or two of Guinness and tell tales of their proudly Irish American friend.

* * *

Mother and child shared a coffin, positioned so Sloane rested on Kelly's chest, as she did after birth.

During four hours of public visitation Tuesday evening, the coffin stayed open, as the family wanted.

Sean Murray, 40, and his younger brother, Brian, 37, of New Haven, Conn., spent the night before Wednesday's funeral sitting with the coffin in the back chapel of Blessed Sacrament. The pastor got them a key so Sean could write his eulogy in the presence of Kelly and Sloane.

The church seats 600, but families from every circle of the Murrays' world needed to be close -- people from the swim club, school, work, the neighborhood, the church, almost 800 of them taking off from work, hurrying back from summer vacations, squeezing together in the pews and filling the sanctuary's aisles and back corridors.

The five surviving Murray girls -- Jillian, 12; Meghan, 11; Maeve, 6; Quinn, 2; and Kieran, 10 months -- presented single roses to a statue of Mary.

Ninety minutes into the two-hour service, Sean, big and broad-shouldered, with a thick mane of black hair, walked swiftly to the pulpit from his first-row pew.

Flanked by his brother, he addressed the five daughters before him: "As time passes, more of what Mommy has nurtured in you will reveal itself. I cannot wait until those days so I can tell you how much like Mommy you are."

Then he spoke to the daughter he lost: "I know you will keep Mommy company as you watch over us, and that gives me more comfort than you will ever know."

He paused for what felt like a very long time.

There was no reason to hold it in now. He spoke to his beloved, told her she gave him the best 15 years of his life, told her she taught him how to love. "I have so many things I have to say to you. You cannot be taken away from me like this."

Fifty-two cars followed the silver hearse from the church to the cemetery in Silver Spring. The procession went up Connecticut, past the spot where contractors had cut down what remained of the red oak.

The help and support seem boundless now, but Sean Murray is a father alone with five girls.

Sean's four siblings are in town, with spouses and children. Kelly's parents are in from California; so is her sister, from Oregon. They all headed for the Eastern Shore.

"We just sit around and tell stories about Kelly and Sloane," Brian Murray said late last week. "That's pretty much all we do. It's not like we're trying to get away from anybody, but to get near water and let the calmness of the seas settle our souls."

Those souls will have to stay strong, for after death, there is still life: Less than 18 hours after a branch crushed her mother and sister, 10-month-old Kieran Murray walked for the first time.

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