He became a foster child at age 1, when his mother left him in an apartment with a pimp. At age 2, he survived heart surgery. Then came severe ear infections, bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity.
At age 6, life was brightening for Sean Campbell, a spunky and affectionate boy who was learning to read and had just received a glowing progress report at school. Then Sunday night, as he happily dashed away from a birthday party in Fairfax County, Sean was struck by a bus and killed.
"It doesn't seem real. He was just so full of life,'' his adoptive mother, Madelyn Campbell, said yesterday, her voice breaking as she stood on her front porch in Arlington. Sean's favorite black truck, still covered with the dirt he loved to play in, lay nearby, as did a scattered set of Legos he had been given after seeing the new "Harry Potter" movie.
Even through their grief, Sean's family members took part in a brewing debate over the speed of the bus and whether buses should even travel in the 8200 block of Tis Well Drive in the Mount Vernon area, where the accident occurred about 7:40 p.m. Residents said last night at a community meeting, called in response to the accident, that although they do not blame the driver for Sean's death, buses and cars regularly speed through the neighborhood.
"The driver was speeding. No brakes at all. The only thing we heard was the sound of the hit,'' Sean's father, Donald Campbell, said earlier in the day. "We're not feeling vindictive, but Fairfax County has not done the right thing by putting large buses on a small residential street like that.''
Fairfax police said, however, that there was no evidence the driver was speeding and that he had been unable to stop when Sean ran from between two parked cars and into the street. Police said at last night's meeting that after the party, Sean had been sitting in the family van with one of his siblings but ran into the street after some kind of dispute between the two.
"It appears to be a horrible accident for this family,'' said a police spokeswoman, Mary Ann Jennings. She said the police department's crash reconstruction unit was taking apart the bus's brakes and checking for other mechanical defects.
Merni Fitzgerald, a county spokeswoman, said the Fairfax Connector bus is operated by Yellow Transportation/Connex, a Baltimore-based contractor. She said the driver, Santos Ruiz, had a spotless driving record and has received commendations from residents within the past three months.
Fitzgerald said the county has made pedestrian safety a major priority and is willing to consider any changes that might enhance safety in the block where Sean was killed. But she said the bus route, No. 105, is one of the county's most heavily traveled and serves two nearby senior citizen centers and numerous residents.
"This is a residential street, but these buses are lifelines to people without any other mode of transportation,'' said Fitzgerald, who added that the county has received no complaints of speeding in the block in the past four years.
Ron Hartman, executive vice president for Yellow Transportation/Connex, said Ruiz is traumatized by the accident and is taking time off. "The fact is that the county determines the bus routes,'' he said. "And this is a very difficult street to speed on. It's very narrow, and there are parked cars on both sides.''
All of this was scant consolation yesterday to Sean's family.
They remembered a bright, feisty boy who loved superheroes and firetrucks, who got into occasional trouble because he couldn't sit still but who would charm his way out of any difficult spot.
"He was always into something, but you could never stay mad at him for very long,'' said Ruth Campbell, one of Sean's seven older siblings.
Madelyn Campbell said: "He was a great big hugger. If he thought you were feeling bad, he would just put his arms around you.''
The Campbells adopted Sean after he was placed with the family as a foster child. Sean remained in touch with his birth mother, however; police in Minneapolis told her of his death, his family said.
Sean, who would have turned 7 on July 21, played soccer in a youth league and had made major progress in first grade at Campbell Elementary School. At a parent-teacher conference Friday, "his teacher was just beaming about how well he was doing. He was doing great in spelling, and he was just about to break through in reading,'' Donald Campbell said.
Sean's teachers and the school's principal visited the Campbells at their home yesterday, and Sean's Sunday school teachers sent a bouquet of flowers.
Sean was especially happy on the way to the birthday party at his older sister's home Sunday because he had just learned how to tie his shoelaces, his family said.
Even with all his physical ailments when he was younger, Sean "was always in such good spirits,'' his mother said. "He just overcame everything.''
A memorial service for Sean will be held Sunday at 1:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington. Because his father is a retired Air Force officer, Sean is expected to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.