It only took a second for the Longstreet family's world to turn upside down.
On a picture-perfect New Year's Day, inside a Chrysler Town & Country mini-van, David Longstreet, along with his wife, Karen, and their four children, were dressed in their Sunday best and on their way to church services at Northside Baptist Church in Lexington.
Turning left from Old Cherokee Road onto U.S. Highway 378, David saw him approaching. Not stopping. A drunken driver barreling down straight at them.
Just the day before, on New Year's Eve, this had been a quintessential American family, playing in the yard during the day, and shooting fireworks by a pond in their subdivision by night, welcoming in a brand new year. Healthy, happy, and secure. A future as clear and bright as that Saturday's sky.
"To be looking up in the beautiful sky God had made that day, it was so beautiful," said David. "And then, the following day…. Things went out of control."
In a second, just a mere second, a life was taken, and the lives of the Longstreet's were forever changed. In a mere second, their lives went from the sublime to the surreal.
David Longstreet likened the hit to that of a train collision.
"I saw it coming in the blur of my eye and I said, 'Oh no, he's not stopping.'" A vehicle, driven by alleged drunken driver Billy Patrick Hutto, 26, of Gilbert, reportedly ran through the intersection and slammed into the side of the family's van.
The force of the hit, said David, was enough that it lifted the van off the road by a good foot or more. And it would have likely caused the van to roll had it not collided with another vehicle also turning from the outer turn lane. That vehicle, driven by Kenneth Sinchak of Lexington, who received numerous but non life-threatening injuries, was a God-send, said David.
Though Longstreet is sad that Sinchak was hurt, he remains eternally grateful: "I want to meet him and thank him," he said. "Without him, I think we all would have been killed."
With a fractured neck, his door mangled, and his driver's seat slammed sideways, Longstreet somehow managed to crawl out of his half-opened window, finding himself battered, bloody and dazed, and lying on his back on the highway.
"I was thinking what a parallel, looking up at that sky," he said, recalling the carefree day before.
Wife Karen, hysterical from the violent collision, was relatively unharmed. The couple's three elementary school-aged boys -- Noah, Levi, and Micah -- were banged up, but OK.
The wreck, which occurred outside Saxe Gotha Presbyterian Church, stopped the service. Congregants streamed out. Those with medical backgrounds lent aid until first responders and paramedics could respond.
But for six-year-old Emma Katherine Longstreet, it was too late.
Recalling the event, David Longstreet broke down and said: [God] put her in his arms and carried her away."
Karen Longstreet, a registered nurse at Lexington Medical Center, rode with her daughter to Richland Palmetto Health hospital that day. "I said, 'Please don't give up on her, don't give up on her, please don't give up on my baby!"
They didn't. And neither did Karen. At least not until David could tell his beloved daughter goodbye.
At the hospital, "they told me that the injuries were unfortunately unsustainable," she said. "They had a pulse back. And I was so hopeful. I said, 'maybe God will do a miracle for her.'
"At that moment, you really can't comprehend the unthinkable; that really maybe someone can survive that," she added. "Because she has to -- she's my little baby. She can't be gone. This can't be real."
While Karen stayed in the pediatric ICU with Emma, her husband and her boys were in the emergency room. Emma wouldn't survive, but Karen was adamant that her husband, in spite of his injuries, be able to say a final goodbye before it was too late.
"I said, 'you just have to get her dad up here. You just have to,'" she said. "He can't be down there while she's up here slipping away."
"There was so many accidents that day," David interjected. "I was waiting to get a CT scan … so by the grace of God, they allowed me to go see her. They allowed me to say my goodbyes to her."
The princess tomboy
Four days after the ordeal, when a reporter shows up on their doorstep, David Longstreet opens the door to the family home. There is a hello, followed by a hug.
"I'm a hugger."
That's the kind of guy David Longstreet is, said his friends and family, who love to note that two decades ago he was the Mississippi State University mascot "Bully," as misleading as that name sounds.
Longstreet, who now works for the Bose Corp. in Blythewood, moved here with his family from Alabama just a few years ago. Natives of Mississippi and Alabama, the family is unconditionally warm and loving and welcoming.
Inside their Lexington home you find a guest book, tons of pictures of Emma on a table in the foyer, her three brothers at the breakfast table, their pet dog Bama, many loving aunts and uncles in from out of town, friends from their church, representatives from the children's school, Midway Elementary, and some framed artwork by Emma that David Longstreet points out with pride.
"She was such a little artist," said her father.
The morning is punctuated by lots of tears and even some laughter by her parents, as well as her kin -- aunts Cathy and Rhonda, Renee and Ramona, and uncle Craig Brown, who said that Emma "is like the daughter" he and his wife never had. And in a family that has spawned mostly boys, Emma's birth seemed a welcome respite, they all agreed.
"Emma just had a special way of making everyone feel special," said Brown, who added he and his wife relished whenever little Emma spent the night at their house.
"She was just the spirit of love and happiness," agreed her dad David. In an emotional tape recording that he made after Emma's death, David said, succinctly: "Thank you Jesus for letting me have Emma."
David and Karen said their daughter was a genuine light in their family. Both a princess and a tomboy, Emma loved girly things -- her Barbies, her Littlest Pet Shop toys -- but was just as happy being with her dad on the riding mower, shooting the last fireworks on New Year's eve, and riding herd over her doting older brothers.
And her dad remembered, through tears, how his daughter loved to dance with him to the tunes of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. "I will always remember that," he said.
In Emma's death, they not only cling to their memories of a little girl gone too soon. They also cling to their abiding faith in God and Jesus to help them pull through and survive.
Just weeks before Emma's death, her father wrote her a letter one day in church. It goes:
I love you very much. Your mommy loves you so much, but God loves you more than us! He loves you so much that he sent his son, Jesus, to die for you. If you were his only child and to save you, he sent his son to save you. Pretty awesome and sacrificial gift to give to us.
We love you, but we are your parents for your time here on Earth, but for only 50 or so years. Hopefully we will be here together a long time to share, laugh, cry, and make memories. Yet, the most important thing in life is for you to get to go home to mom and dad. Believing and accepting Jesus as your savior and walking with God, you will be in heaven with mom, dad, and [grandmother] Meme one day.
-- Your dad
In addition to family and friends, both Karen and David agreed that their faith will be the key to turning their upside down world back up again. Despite their anger and grief, it would be too easy to simply blame the troubled man that stole their child.
"Bitterness is a cancer, and it will kill you," said Karen.
And, David said that in Emma's death he has discovered --or at least rediscovered -- something else as well. Life is short.
"I think people get lost in the shuffle…, " he said. "Make the time to do the small things. It's the small things that matter…. Slow down, find time, do the simple things."
Added Karen: "I've never been more sad in my entire life, but I've never been so grateful either … I still have a family of five. I still can't believe I have a family of five.
"I think the trial for me begins when everybody leaves and I'm alone," she added. "And that's the part I'm scared about the most. For everybody now, it's fresh on their minds, and they feel terrible. But in a month or two or three as time goes by, their life will go on. My life will just be beginning in a new and different way."
"That strength that's up there [with God], that will sustain us daily," said David. "It's not a sprint, it's a marathon."
"I know that a lot of marriages, the statistics are not good," Karen said. "The best thing we can do is keep loving each other. The best thing we can do for those three boys is their mom and dad loving each other."
But, she said, "God saved him (David), because I couldn't have walked through this without that wonderful man right there. He's my rock."
The meaning of names
David said he finds meaning in names. And perhaps the family can find meaning, and healing, in the names of their children.
"Noah means 'peace and rest,' Levi means 'righteousness,' Micah means 'God is with us.'
"And Emma means 'wholeness,'" he said.
"She has brought this whole family together…. She will always be our little girl. God just had something in store for her beyond what we could ever hope or imagine," he said.
"Me being a dad, I would have loved seeing her grow up and being a cheerleader. Date boys. Drive. Go to college. Get married and have kids. But -- I was always the one thinking she would be the one taking care of us."
Note: Burial services for Emma Longstreet will be held today.