Even the policemen cried.
Tuesday morning was unlike any other at Fort Meade’s Lewis Anna Woodbury Elementary School, where the three R’s were replaced by the raw reality that fate had unexpectedly claimed the lives of a worker there, and her 8-year-old daughter who had been a LAW student since her pre-kindergarten days.
“Heaven just got two new angels,” said School Resource Officer Kevin O’Neal.
The popular pair, 42-year old Dawn Ensslin and her youngest daughter Delaney were killed in a three-car accident Monday afternoon on U.S. Highway 17 in Homeland. Another daughter, 14-year old Destiny, was listed Tuesday in critical but stable condition after being airlifted to Lakeland Regional Medical Center.
Lesson plans were replaced with loving hugs. Textbooks were put aside for tender remembrances of a mother and daughter who, as everyone who knew them said, were so much alike in their positive attitude and smiling faces. Tears flowed unabashedly.
“We called her little Dawn,” recalled CaSandra Bevis, executive director of HELP of Fort Meade, about the precocious third-grader that everyone knew best as “Tink” — as in the Disney character “Tinker Bell — for her fairy-like stature and personality. “We would smile and say she’s just like her mother.”
She was a student in the class of Ginger Wellden. On Tuesday, her classmates made cards addressed to her, and left them on Tink’s desk.
Her mom assisted in HELP’s literacy program, and their birth to 5 program, before leaving a couple of years ago to take a position in the school cafeteria. The former Dawn Jerkins, she was born and raised in Fort Meade, graduating high school in 1989. Her parents are William and June Jerkins, who survive.
“She was actually planning on coming back this year, to work with us at night,” Bevis added. “She was phenomenal. She was witty. She had a heart like no other. She looked out for people’s best.”
It would be easier to list the things she wasn’t involved in than the things she was. She coached her daughter in softball, she volunteered to help serve meals at the Florida Flywheelers to help raise funds for the literacy program and she was ever-present at First Baptist Church, offering her time and energy on a wide variety of projects, to cite just a few.
“She pitched in wherever you needed her — ‘yeah, I’ll do it.’ When she had a passion, she ran with it,” Bevis added.
Tink “was just a happy kid,” O’Neal added. “Her mom was, too. She always had a smile on her face, no matter what kind of a day she was having.”
Crisis intervention teams were sent to several schools Tuesday morning, in addition to LAW. Destiny was a student in Fort Meade schools through the sixth grade, and is presently a freshman at Kathleen High School in Lakeland where she lived with her father. She had just made the junior varsity softball team, a family friend said.
She maintained close friendships here, however, and was even at this past weekend’s homecoming football game, so counselors were available at the high school as well.
In a horribly ironic twist, the Ensslin car was hit by a mini-van driven by 77 year-old Doris Foust of Fort Meade, who is also well-known at the school. She is the crossing guard with the ever-present friendly smile and wave stationed on East Broadway, near LAW.
According to police, the Ensslin vehicle was traveling north on U.S. 17 and attempted to make a left-hand turn onto County Road 640, turning into the path of the Foust vehicle. Both vehicles had green lights, police say.
First Baptist Church Youth Pastor Frank Derrick knew both mother and daughter well.
“If there was a slot, she was willing to fill it,” Derrick said. Mom and her two daughters were in church Sunday. “Tink was a ray of sunshine. Everybody just loved that little one. She was full of life. She had that kind of wink-of-the-eye-wit; even as a little one, she had a spark about her. She had that little bounce to her step, kind of like a little pixie. Tink was very appropriate. That applied to her.”
Derrick said the two were definite a case of like mother like daughter.
“I would say so. Outgoing personality, warm and friendly, good people to be around,” he noted.
As always, the tragedy leads to the inevitable question of why?
“What we do know is that God has a plan. And from our human understanding, we don’t always understand that plan,” Derrick said. “We don’t always have the immediate answer as to why.”
Law enforcers still aren’t sure why Destiny was behind the wheel of the family’s Chevy Cobalt. Police say she did not have a driver’s license. Florida law says a person must be at least 15 years of age to obtain a learner’s permit.
Police also said it is also unclear at this point whether or not anyone in the Ensslin vehicle was wearing a seat belt, although none of the victims were ejected in the crash.
“Unfortunately, a 14-year-old unlicensed teenager was driving a car and turned left on a green light into the path of another car, which subsequently resulted in the deaths of her mother and her sister. This is a tragic situation, and our thoughts and prayers are with the Ensslin family,” Sheriff Grady Judd, who was on scene, said.
The initial report of the accident came in at 4:36 p.m. Monday, police said, and the first EMT was on scene eight minutes later. Fire and rescue personnel from Bartow and Fort Meade were called to the scene.
Police said the initial T-bone collision caused the Foust van to roll onto its side. Dorothy, the driver, and her husband Richard were taken by ambulance to the Bartow Regional Medical Center with minor injuries.
After the initial collision, the two cars then impacted a 2001 Toyota that was attempting to make a turn from County Road 640 to U.S. 17 southbound. That vehicle was driven by Martha Criswell, 56, also of Fort Meade. She was also taken to Bartow Regional Medical Center with minor injuries.
As of press time Tuesday afternoon, no funeral arrangements had been released.
“On behalf of the family of Dawn and Delaney Ensslin, our thoughts and prayers go out to all of those who were involved in this tragic accident. We’d like to express our heartfelt thanks for the outpouring of support from the community. We ask that you please respect our privacy now as we mourn the untimely loss of our loved ones,” said Dawn’s older brother Jack, in a statement released by the sheriff’s office Tuesday.