The day Marissa Quattrone Rodriguez lost her beloved twins started like any other.
It was a “hopeful” and “happy” day – “especially being a Friday because we were going to take them to the beach for the first time that weekend”, Marissa tells 7NEWS.
But that day in July 2019 was the day her world ended and now everything in Marissa’s life is divided into “before and after the twinkies passed”.
Little Luna and Phoenix, a girl and boy, were aged just one when their father, Marissa’s husband Juan, accidentally forgot to drop them at daycare before going to work in New York.
Instead, the babies were mistakenly left in the car – where the temperature rose steadily to a deadly heat.
“The moment I heard the news, I honestly could not believe what Juan was telling me was real,” Marissa recalls.
“I could tell how much panic and pain was in his voice, but I just couldn’t bring myself to believe it.”
She had been at work when Juan, who had spent the day counselling disabled veterans at a hospital, called her to tell her to pick up the kids from daycare.
My love, oh my God, my love… I killed the babies
It wasn’t an unusual request. The pair communicated about who would collect the children on a regular basis.
“I said no problem, and carried on with my work,” Marissa recalls.
“I was on a work-related call, when he called back just a moment later, so I missed his call. But I saw he left a message, which he never does, and then he called me again. Clearly it was an emergency.
“I answered that time to hear him repeatedly say: ‘My love, oh my God, my love… I killed the babies’. He said the same thing over and over. And I just kept saying ‘no, no, no. It’s not true’.”
It was only after Juan had looked in the rearview mirror of his Honda sedan after his shift that he realised he’d never taken the babies to childcare that day.
Marissa ran out of her office and drove towards where Juan worked.
She found the street blocked off with caution tape and officers at the scene wouldn’t allow her near the family car.
As Juan was arrested Marissa saw an ambulance leaving the scene.
“I asked if they [the babies] were in there,” she says. “They were not, which I knew, but just couldn’t believe it.
“I wanted so much to think there was some hope. I never knew about this before. Never knew so many babies passed this way. Never heard of Forgotten Baby Syndrome prior to this happening. I just didn’t think this could happen to us.”
From that moment, Marissa says, “everything shattered”.
“All my hopes and dreams for them, for our family, for my son to grow up with siblings close in age to him, for their beautiful, bright futures….
“I struggled with my desire to stay here on earth for a while.”
I have told him he is my hero multiple times
Gone was Luna – the little girl with dark hair and blue eyes who loved music and dancing.
“She paid attention to detail, if ever there was a hair or tiny hole or something amiss with clothing she would point at it until I did something about it,” Marissa smiles.
Gone was Phoenix – Marissa’s “big boy”.
“He was way bigger than any of our other children at one year old,” Marissa recalls.
“They both loved to run around and climb our small playset and slides. We still have the playset, but it hardly got used after they passed. My son didn’t go on it much by himself. It was just a sad reminder that they’re not here.”
The devastated mum says she “honestly doesn’t know” where she would be if it weren’t for her now six-year-old son.
“I try not to put pressure on him, but I have told him he is my hero multiple times,” she admits.
How did it happen?
How could a father possibly forget his children were in the car?
It’s a question David Diamond, a neuroscientist at the University of South Florida, has been determined to answer.
According to David, this type of memory failure is the result of a “competition between the brain’s ‘habit memory’ system and its ‘prospective memory’ system”.
“And the habit memory system prevails,” David previously explained.
Having studied numerous cases of children left in cars, David has made a “universal observation”.
“Each parent’s brain appears to have created the false memory that he or she had brought the child to daycare,” David wrote.
I feel I failed them too
“This scientific anomaly explains why these parents went about their routine activities, which even included telling others that they needed to leave work on time to retrieve their child from daycare. Having this ‘false memory’ caused them to be oblivious to the fact that their child had remained in the car all day.”
Despite there being a scientific explanation for the tragedy, both Marissa and Juan are tormented by the feeling that they “failed” their babies.
“Our job as parents is to protect our children. He feels like he failed them, and though the loss was not my fault, I feel I failed them too. I am left with so many ‘why?’ and ‘what if?’ questions,” Marissa says.
In the two and half years that have passed since the tragedy, Marissa says she had Juan have tried to make a “normal life” for their other children and themselves.
“But nothing can bring back the genuine hope and happiness we once possessed,” she says.
“There is never a time now that we simply experience joy, without it hurting a little that they are not here being a part of it.”
A life changed
When she looks back, Marissa says the first few months after the tragedy passed in a “fog”.
To start with all she wanted to do was “crawl under a rock and disappear”.
But there was the agony of a funeral to arrange, a lawyer to hire and the torment of telling her then four-year-old son that he’d never see his brother and sister again.
“I had to go to the medical office to confirm photos of my babies were actually them,” Marissa says. “They looked horrible in the photos. Images I will never be able to get out of my head. Something I wish no one would ever have to experience.”
There were also haunting reminders at every turn.
“A few days after they passed we got a bag of items that were in the car,” Marissa remembers.
“The first thing I saw was one shoe each of theirs. I have kept them with me since that day, everywhere I go, the shoes go.”
I have also lost some friends along the way
But along with the mementos was the media circus that surrounded the twins’ deaths.
“All I wanted to do was grieve and I could not because there were news reporters being incredibly invasive, waiting outside the court so we couldn’t get in the car,” the mum adds. “Waiting at my house so I had to stay elsewhere, they were there for weeks, just hoping to take photos of us, and they did.
“We had to get clothes and items so I had to go eventually, they were ringing my doorbell, calling my phone from unknown numbers, writing anything they thought was true, even when it wasn’t.”
The ordeal took its toll.
“Friends tell me I had conversations with them that I have no recollection of,” Marissa says.
“I have also lost some friends along the way,” she adds candidly.
“One person told me they don’t know how to speak with me, they don’t know what to say. That hurts. And there have also been new people in my life that I now consider close friends because they have been there during my darkest moments.”
Today, Marissa and Juan are still together – but their relationship is forever, irrevocably changed.
“I realised Juan and I grieve in very different ways. I like to look at photos of happier times. He does not,” Marissa shares, adding there are “many other differences”.
“But we are both in agreement that we focus on the twins’ lives, their birthdays and fun memories, and try not to focus on their death or the loss.
“I speak to my babies all the time,” she adds. “I have songs that remind me of them and signs that I see. It could all be in my head, but it comforts me to think that’s their way of sending me love.”
Juan avoided prison after pleading guilty to two counts of reckless endangerment – with the judge calling the case a “tragic, unfortunate incident”.
“I was definitely not always supportive of Juan,” Marissa admits. “I was very angry at a lot of people. And when Juan was released from jail they appointed me as his ‘watch’ to make sure he did not kill himself.
“I admit at the time, I don’t think I cared what he did. I was pushed and pulled in different directions and I just wanted to leave.”
And for a while Marissa did leave.
“I took my four-year-old and travelled a bit to not have to be home with the sad memories,” she says.
But as time passed, Marissa says her “anger lessened” and her “understanding grew”.
“I know Juan would have never hurt our children intentionally. My goal was then to keep him out of jail.”
On the advice of their lawyer, Marissa appeared on the Dr Phil show – something she remains conflicted by.
“They were all more interested in ratings and pulling on the heartstrings of viewers than getting the point across that something has to be done and can intact be done really easily to prevent this,” she says.
And Marissa is adamant that something can be done – with the implementation of a Hot Car Act in the US.
The act would require all new vehicles to be equipped with technology that detects if someone is still inside after the engine is switched off.
If so, an alert would be sent to the driver and others close to the car – in a bid to stop injuries and death by heatstroke.
It’s technology that Marissa hopes can be used across the world – including in Australia where each year more than 5000 children are rescued after being left unattended in a car.
“We both certainly hope that the Hot Cars Act is passed and that the safety measure mandates to detect life in vehicles are utilised outside of the US,” Marissa says.
And she has a message to Australians and others around the globe.
“I am available to speak with any parent who has gone through a similar tragedy,” she says.
“We are, unfortunately, family now. The group that no parent wants to ever join.”
Making the Hot Cars Act a reality
Janette Fennell, founder and president of KidsAndCars.org, has spoken passionately about what the Hot Cars Act must become a reality. Here she shares her insight.
“Children will continue to die in hot cars unless something is done to help our overtaxed brains.
Education alone will not solve this problem. These unthinkable tragedies can only be prevented with technology.
We certainly wish that we could train our memories to ‘never forget’ but this is a very ‘human’ condition we all live with.
The auto makers have already acknowledged and confirmed just how ‘human’ we really are. Our vehicles are filled with reminder systems. You get a buzz if you forget to buckle up; if your car door is not closed properly you receive a warning. Newer vehicles let us know if our tire pressure needs to be tweaked.
You are reminded if you inadvertently leave your keys in the ignition; and all vehicles come with a reminder to turn off your headlights and on some makes and models they actually turn your headlights off for you… because no one wants a dead car battery.
So if all of these reminder systems are possible; how can we allow children to continue to die in hot vehicles each and EVERY year?
When we learn about the possibility of tainted peanut butter, store shelves are emptied immediately. Faulty kids’ toys and bad hamburger is recalled without delay. Yet, we shamefully remain complacent about the children who continue to die for something utterly preventable.
For the sake of the children and their families, we must pass this bill into law. Car companies must step up to protect their most vulnerable passengers.
The choice is very easy. It’s simple. What’s more important? A dead car battery or a dead baby?”
If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondblue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.
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