Todd Heap ranks as one of Mesa’s most acclaimed athletes, starring at Mountain View High School and Arizona State University before he became a two-time Pro Bowl tight end with the Baltimore Ravens and Arizona Cardinals.
But while Heap achieved many accolades on the football field, one terrible moment on the afternoon of April 14, when he accidentally ran over and killed his 3-year-old daughter in his Las Sendas driveway, has plunged Heap to depths of heartbreak that few can fathom.
Although it is of no consolation at such a tragic moment, Heap is far from the only parent to accidentally run down a child. Little Holly Heap’s death is yet another example of a type of accident that happens too frequently from visibility issues created by the dangerous combination of small children and tall pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles.
Janette E. Fennell, founder and president of KidsandCars.org, said at least 42 children were killed in a similar manner in 2016, a type of collision known as a “front over.” Since the mid-1990s, more than 800 children have died in such accidents.
She said most vehicles have a front “blind zone” of six to eight feet, with the problem most pronounced in tall pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles. In many cases, a parent is behind the wheel during such tragedies.
“I think everybody will agree that the worst thing that can happen to a parent is the loss of a child,” Fennell said. “Not only has the child died, but you are the person who killed the child.”
Most people are more familiar with the blind zone behind vehicles, which can be 15 to 60 feet, she said. Federal regulations require that all vehicles manufactured after May 2018 be equipped with rearview cameras as standard equipment.
Increasingly, technology in some new vehicles typically combines a forward collision-warning system with automatic braking. The systems beep when a collision with another car or pedestrian is imminent and will apply the brakes if necessary.
Detective Steve Berry, a Mesa police spokesman, said the tragic fatality occurred at 3:45 p.m on April 14 in the 7600 block of East Summit Trail, in a gated community.
He said the accident occurred when Heap drove his pickup truck forward, not noticing that his daughter was standing in the driveway, in the path of the vehicle. The little girl was taken to a hospital, where she died from her injuries.
Berry said that there was nothing suspicious about the circumstances involving the accident and that there were no signs impairment.
The accident remains under investigation.
Heap and his wife, Ashley, have five children, including the victim, according to a variety of published reports. The couple is renowned for their generosity, including a pledge of $1 million in 2007 that helped launch the Todd Heap Family Pediatric Center at a hospital in Baltimore.
In a December 2015 story on the Ravens’ website, Heap explained his devotion to his family.
“Family has always been the most important thing in my life. And, now with my own, it’s even more important. It’s the most important calling in my life, to be a husband and father. I look at how my parents raised me, and I hope I can be as good as they are. Family was always ahead of football. I would place God first, family and then football. Football was a huge part of my life, but family is always bigger.”
When asked what makes him smile, Heap said, “I just got done jumping on the trampoline with my 2-year-old daughter, and it’s hard to get a bigger smile than that. I took all three of my boys golfing this morning. That was a lot of fun. [My wife] Ashley makes me smile every day. Family and all of the events we do, that regularly makes me smile.”
Fennell said it’s possible to look at Heap’s tragedy and to learn from it to spare the lives of other children.
“It’s a tragedy that breaks your heart,” he said.
“This could be a teachable moment,” Fennell said, adding that her condolences go out to Heap and his family. “Everyone knows he would never put his child in harm’s way.”
She said her best advice for parents is to walk around their pickup truck or SUV before moving it, and to make sure children are in sight and are supervised by an adult. Sometimes, excited children will run outside to say goodbye to a parent who is driving away, making themselves prone to serious injury or even death.
Holly Heap’s tragic death was not the first time a Mesa family experienced such a heartbreaking loss. On June 28, 2005, Eric Quick was driving his SUV into his garage in the 2300 block of East Fox Street when he accidentally struck and killed his daughter, Tiffany, who was only 20 months old.
The Mesa neighborhood supported the Quicks, according to published reports, by cooking meals and cleaning the family’s house.
Michele Quick, Tiffany’s mother, recounted the horror she experienced that day in a testimonial featured on Fennell’s organization’s website. She explained how her husband was moving a 1999 Chevrolet Suburban into the garage, out of the sun, to keep the seats cool before taking the children for a trip to restaurant later that afternoon.
“Somewhere in the confusion while the kids and I went in the house to get their shoes on, our little 20-month-old Tiffany walked outside, anxious, I am sure, to help her daddy move the car in, or perhaps not understanding that he was not leaving, to give him one more kiss. That was it; it was over.
“Because of the height and size of our SUV and her small size, he did not know she was there. I have nightmares of hearing him scream into the house, ‘CALL 911, CALL 911.’ I knew, I knew that she was gone,” Michele Quick wrote. “As I was on the phone with 911, he came in and screamed that she was dead. DEAD? I thought how could this be? I had just been holding this little beautiful girl. WHY?”
Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said technology is increasingly available to prevent such tragedies. Carmakers often combine forward collision warning systems with an automatic braking system.
He said most safety features usually are introduced on luxury cars and eventually percolate down to all vehicles. A study by the Institute recently determined that automatic braking systems eliminate an estimated 50 percent of rear-end collisions with other cars.
The forward collision-warning systems typically combine sensors, cameras and lasers. They were initially targeted at avoiding rear-end collisions with other cars, but they are being fine-tuned to recognize pedestrians as well, Rader said. The auto industry has committed to making the systems standard equipment by 2022, with some companies voluntarily doing so on present models.
“If you are shopping for a new car, you should be looking for vehicles with these items,” Rader said. “They could not only avoid a fender bender, they could avoid a tragedy.”
Even if the system is part of a pricey package of features, “it’s well worth the money,” Rader said.