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Gone With A Gunshot, His Little Sister Remains 'Eternally 8'

Sean Smith, 10, with his sister Erin, 8, at home on June 4, 1989,” the day before her death.
Courtesy of Lee Smith
Sean Smith, 10, with his sister Erin, 8, at home on June 4, 1989,” the day before her death.

Editor's Note: Some may find the graphic material in this post disturbing.

"I remember taking the gun out," says Sean Smith. "My sister was off to the side of the room."

Smith, now 36, was just 10 years old at the time. He had arrived home after school with his 8-year-old sister, Erin. Their parents weren't home yet, so they'd gone searching for hidden video games in their father's dresser drawer.

That's when Sean Smith found a .38 revolver.

"I distinctly remember her saying, 'You should put it back' — and she ran across as my finger hit the trigger," Smith says. "It went off and, in a flash, she was down."

As his ears were ringing from the shot, he picked up his sister and set her in his lap. He held his hand over the wound as he called 911; he attempted CPR and got no response. His sister was dead.

When a police officer finally arrived, he pulled Smith into another room and sat him down.

"I was just trying to wrap my 10-year-old mind around what had happened — that, you know, in an instant, my sister wasn't there anymore," Smith tells his mother, Lee, on a recent visit with StoryCorps.

He asks her: What does she remember about the day Erin died?

"It was just a blur, to be honest with you," Lee Smith tells her son. "You know, when something happens — like when a crime happens — you're mad at this person. But we had nobody to get mad at, because how can you get mad at a 10-year-old little boy?"

Afterward, Smith would have conversations with his father. His father tried to reassure him that it wasn't his fault — even, Smith thinks in retrospect, struggling with his own feelings of guilt. But those conversations didn't help.

"I mean, any little mention or memory of Erin would break me down, and, you know, I'd be a crying mess," Smith says. "We were only a year apart, and we definitely had that sibling love."

Sean Smith, with his mother, Lee, at their StoryCorps recording.
/ StoryCorps
Sean Smith, with his mother, Lee, at their StoryCorps recording.

His mother has struggled with the pain of the accident, too.

"I had the hardest time when people asked me how many children I have. They go, 'Oh, what's their ages?' And I say, '41, 36 and eternally 8.' "

And she's seen it change her son. "When you were younger," she tells him, "it seemed to me that you just pushed it aside. But as you got older it seemed to come more to the surface."

He dropped out of high school, abused drugs. He was on a dark track — "but then my son Dylan was born," he says, "and I didn't want to go back to that life anymore. So my son pretty much saved my life."

If she could speak to Erin today, Lee Smith says, she would love to be able to tell her daughter that Sean is OK now.

"But I'm worried you're not," she tells him. "I'm worried that this is going to haunt you forever."

"I would want to tell her I'm sorry," Sean Smith says. "I regret every single thing that happened that day. And I wish one day that I'll be good.

"And it'd be nice to finally say that and, you know, mean it."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall and Andrés Caballero.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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