In his mind's slow-motion replay, Christopher Suydan grips the hands of his young son and daughter as they begin crossing the street that sunny weekend day in Northeast Washington.
The walk signal is flashing, and traffic is stopped. Halfway across the intersection, the father feels safe enough to let go, and the children hustle ahead of him. Then, a hurtling Honda bursts into view. The car plows into his daughter and son with such force that it knocks them out of their small shoes. Octavia, 8, and Christopher Jr., 7, are killed almost instantly.
"I have spent a lot of time thinking about those two seconds and how those two seconds made all of the difference," Suydan said in a recent interview, his first since the Sept. 11 accident that generated a community outcry.
"Time just kind of froze and stood still because, I guess, I was trying to figure out what was going on and what had happened," the father said. "Then I went over to my kids. I didn't want to move them. I just looked at both of them in the eyes, and I knew they were gone."
The Honda's driver, Eric Palmer, 19, of Northeast was fleeing a police drug sting at speeds of up to 80 mph moments before he hit the children. Palmer has been jailed since his arrest. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder charges and is to be sentenced Friday.
After the crash, several witnesses questioned whether police were tailing Palmer closely and contributed to the accident. Police officials said they cut off the pursuit before the accident.
In a recently issued 57-page report, the police department's internal affairs unit found no fault with the officers' conduct. The Washington Post obtained a copy of the report and interviewed Suydan, police officers and bystanders for the most complete account yet of what happened that Saturday.
The entire episode lasted about 30 seconds and covered 10 residential blocks filled with cars and pedestrians, including the two young Suydan children and their father crossing a busy street.
For Suydan, the day started about 10 a.m., when the 36-year-old father picked up his children at their mother's house in Temple Hills. A telecommunications technician, he planned to take them to a company picnic in Howard County. Suydan and the children's mother, Towhanna Boston, had separated four years earlier. Octavia, known as Tavi, and Christopher Jr., or C.J., played together constantly and were excited about the weekend outing. Christopher told his mother that he was going to eat lots of juicy shrimp and bring her some, too.
But first, Suydan had a few errands. He picked up some cash at a buddy's house and went to a car repair shop in the 1200 block of Florida Avenue NE to fix a flat tire on his Ford Taurus. He didn't want to drive to the picnic on his spare.
By then, it was just before noon, and the children were hungry. Suydan decided to get chips and juice at a store on the other side of Florida Avenue. He and the children waited at the intersection of Florida and Montello avenues for traffic to stop and the walk signal to begin flashing.
"I was thinking this was going to be another great day," Suydan said. "It was just a nice day."
Fleeing a Sting
About 10 blocks away, D.C. police officers were conducting a drug sting in the 600 block of Orleans Place NE. An undercover officer had just purchased $25 in crack cocaine from a suspect who was standing next to a brown Honda Accord, police said.
Palmer, who was in the Honda's driver's seat, was not a target of the police activity that day. But he had his own history of trouble with police. He had been in court just three days earlier, on Sept. 8, accused of violating terms of his probation on a drug charge. The judge warned Palmer that he would be jailed if he got into any more trouble.
Sgt. John Brennan and Sgt. Wilfredo Manlapaz, working on the narcotics detail, moved in after the drug buy, pulling their marked police car in front of the Honda. When they got out to arrest the suspect, Palmer accelerated, headed straight at Manlapaz, according to the internal police report.
The sergeant dived into his police car to avoid being hit. As Palmer turned south and raced onto Sixth Street NE, he was spotted by another officer, Joseph Haggerty Jr.
Haggerty, who had two other officers in his car, chased the Honda as it made a hard left onto L Street. He flipped on his lights and siren as the Honda zipped through stop signs at nearly 80 mph. Near Eighth and L streets -- about two blocks from Florida Avenue -- Haggerty thought that the Honda was going too fast to continue chasing, he said in an interview.
About that time, a supervisor radioed officers and ordered them to halt the pursuit, according to the police report. Another officer in the cruiser turned off the lights and siren, and Haggerty slowed down, the report states.
Palmer has told police that he looked in his rearview mirror and saw no officers tailing him as he rounded the bend on Florida Avenue, investigators said.
Palmer continued speeding down Florida, however. He told investigators that he tried to use the Honda's brakes near Montello Avenue but that they did not work. The police report says that the brakes were found to be in working order.
Cars were stopped at the intersection, so Palmer swerved into the oncoming lane to avoid hitting them, he told investigators.
Two witnesses, still haunted by what they saw, recounted the next few seconds in interviews with The Post. They also gave statements to police.
Keenan Patience, 41, was stopped behind several cars at Montello Avenue, waiting for the light to change. He remembers hearing a revving engine and looking out his driver's side window. The Honda blew past him and hit the two children in the crosswalk. Then it hit a Ford Thunderbird, injuring its driver.
Quinton Ivy, 52, had been making a right turn onto Florida Avenue from Montello and watched as Suydan and the children began to cross the street. As Ivy pulled onto Florida, he saw the Honda heading straight for him.
"It was barreling down the street and coming around traffic," said Ivy, who swerved to avoid being hit. "He barely missed me."
Patience said he went home and hugged his children after the crash. Ivy, meanwhile, second-guesses his move to avoid the collision.
"If I had let this guy hit me head-on, these two kids would still be alive," Ivy said. "I wish I had let him hit me instead."
Haggerty, who came upon the wrecked vehicles but did not see the crash, has children the same ages as Octavia and Christopher Jr. "I'm still not completely over it," the officer said. "I think about it all the time. . . . Before, I would let my kids go ahead of me a bit. Now, they are right next to me."
Like several other witnesses questioned by police, Patience and Ivy disagree about whether officers were chasing the Honda. Patience is convinced that they were not; Ivy is just as sure that they were.
No Signs of Full Chase
D.C. police have a policy that restricts pursuits in almost all cases, except those involving violent crimes or deadly threats. In this case, Sgt. Ralph Wax, who investigated the pursuit and wrote the department's report on the incident, said officers followed proper procedure.
At least three witnesses told investigators that police cars were closely trailing Palmer's Honda. Several others, including Patience, said that they heard no sirens and that officers did not arrive for 20 or 30 seconds after the wreck, according to interviews and police reports.
Investigators found no skid marks at the scene to indicate that police cars had tried to stop suddenly after the collision, the report shows. Police cruisers also did not crash into the other cars at the intersection -- a near certainty had they been tailing the Honda at a high speed, Wax said.
The first officers to arrive at the intersection had to be told where Palmer had fled after the crash -- another indication that they were not close enough to have been involved in a chase, Wax said.
Suydan, the man closest to the crash scene, said police were not chasing Palmer at the time of the accident. However, once they started their pursuit, Suydan said, officers never should have stopped it.
"If they had kept chasing him with their sirens on, we never would have been in the street," he said.
Suydan, who lives in Laurel, and the children's mother said they are struggling to fill the void left by the sudden deaths of the children.
Boston, who has two daughters from a previous relationship, said she is writing a book about her emotions. Its title: "Watch the Rainbow After the Rain."
When she feels depressed, she said, she often plays an answering machine message left by Octavia.
Suydan, who lives in Laurel, started a small memorial fund in the children's names and has passed along donations to needy and honor roll students at the schools his son and daughter attended.
His bedroom is lined with photographs of his smiling children. He often wears necklaces emblazoned with their images. And, nearby at all times, he keeps a small bag containing some of the children's clothes, a colorful funeral program and condolence letters from their classmates.
A few months after the accident, he had their names tattooed on his wrists -- a permanent reminder of lives taken in a split-second before his eyes.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.