PELHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – He carried an index card with him.
On it, 16-year-old Aaron Brewer had summed up his view of the world: “If everyone looked for the lost, no one would have to be found.”
But on a hot March afternoon, Aaron had been lost. After finishing a mile run during his 7th-period track practice, Aaron died beside the Pelham High School track. No one had found him until it was too late.
His parents, who found Aaron later that evening in Pelham, want to ensure that no child is ever left behind again.
A laugh and a prayer
Kristi Larsen Brewer can remember Aaron’s laugh as he drove to school on March 25. Aaron had woken up too late to catch the bus. It was the day before spring break, and the Brewers planned on bringing Aaron to get his unrestricted driver’s license while school was out. But, in the meantime, Kristi had jumped in the passenger’s seat. It was the last ride she’d take with her son.
On the way to Pelham High, Aaron was his usual, playful self, his mom said. He made snarky comments, and the two laughed together. When they arrived, they both got out of the car. Kristi said a prayer for Aaron, something she did every single day. And she reminded Aaron that he was going to get a tuxedo that afternoon in preparation for prom. Then, they parted.
“He ran up the path going into Pelham High School,” Kristi said. “And that’s the last time I saw him alive.”
The search for Aaron
Just after 3 p.m., Ryan Brewer, Aaron’s dad, received an odd phone call. Aaron’s girlfriend called to tell him that she had Aaron’s phone. She explained that she’d borrowed it earlier in the day and hadn’t had the chance to give it back. She asked if she could drop it off at the Brewers’ home. Ryan said that was fine, but he was confused.
“Something about that struck me,” he said.
He asked the teen where Aaron was now. Probably at track practice, she said.
“That didn’t sound right,” Ryan said.
So Ryan Brewer called Kristi, who reassured him. Aaron’s almost certainly on the bus on the way home, she explained. No reason for concern.
Ryan Brewer continued to finish up some work, but around 4:40, he headed downstairs to find Aaron: It was time for them to head to the tux shop. Aaron wasn’t there.
“I thought – I bet what happened is he must have missed the bus, and he doesn’t have his phone,” Ryan said. “Or maybe he really is still at track practice.”
Uncertain about what was happening, but sure that Aaron wasn’t where he should be, Ryan Brewer jumped in his car.
By 5:10, Ryan had arrived at the school to look around for Aaron. There was a baseball game happening on another part of campus, but the school’s track seemed empty. Ryan called Kristi and Aaron’s girlfriend to see if they’d heard anything, but they’d heard nothing at all.
“Please tell me you have Aaron,” Ryan recalls telling Kristi. She didn’t.
At that point, Ryan said, Kristi’s maternal instincts took charge. She headed straight to Pelham High School. What she found would change the Brewers’ lives forever.
“We all ended up at the gate,” Kristi said. “Where you go in for the games and stuff like that.”
A few folks were gathered already, talking and looking around. Kristi felt pulled in another direction.
“I started walking away because I knew the jump mats were down at the other end of the field,” she said.
Aaron was a high jumper. Maybe he was just relaxing by the mats, she thought.
“I walked down behind the bleachers closest to the jump mats,” she said. “I just felt like he was there.”
As soon as she got to the chain link fence, she saw her son.
“I yelled to him and he didn’t move,” Kristi said. “He didn’t hear me.”
She thought he’d fallen asleep. She yelled to her husband for help, but he was too far away to hear her. She tried to get through the gate in the fence around the track and football field, but it was locked. She did the only thing she knew to do.
“I threw my phone through the gate and climbed over,” she said.
When she got over the fence, she ran to Aaron.
“He was blue,” Kristi said. “He was laying in the position that he would have been in if he had been trying to cool himself off.”
Aaron had suffered from tachycardia – a racing heart – for years, but doctor after doctor had dismissed it as benign. A doctor had signed off on Aaron running track without restriction.
Kristi’s retelling sped up as she described what happened next.
“I screamed and screamed and screamed,” she said. Ryan heard her.
Kristi attempted CPR. So did Ryan. Nothing could breathe life back into Aaron. He’d been left behind.
Soon, an ambulance arrived. Again and again, they, too, tried to resuscitate Aaron, but it was too late.
Ryan approached the paramedics.
“Gentleman, you can stop,” he remembers telling them. “I know he’s gone.”
What comes after
In the time since Aaron’s death, the Brewers have searched for answers. What happened to their son? Why had he been left behind? The questions, they thought, seemed endless and impossible to answer to their satisfaction. But the search began.
The family later found out that Aaron’s death was due to a mitral valve prolapse. The heart condition, like the tachycardia Aaron experienced throughout his life, is typically benign, causing no real harm to those who suffer from it. In Aaron’s case, the condition turned fatal. A defibrillator that may have saved Aaron’s life was just over a football field away.
The Brewers said that in the early days after Aaron’s death, they felt strongly that school officials should face repercussions.
“I had made the analogy – I said if I had left my five-year-old in the car, and they died of heat stroke three hours later, I would be facing criminal charges,” Ryan said of his initial reaction.
Over time, his views evolved.
“Ultimately we came to the realization that they’re just human,” Ryan said. “They were doing the best job that they knew how. But what they know is not good enough. And we’ve got to teach them a better way.”
It was the lack of a policy to prevent such a tragedy that was at fault, Ryan said.
To that end, the Brewers said they’ve engaged with Pelham City Schools to work towards policy changes that may help prevent deaths like their son’s, such as implementing a checkout system. They said simple changes like that could greatly reduce the chances that a child is left behind as Aaron had been.
“I don’t want his death to be politicized or anything like that,” Kristi said. “I want change to happen at the school but I don’t want it to be because it’s been sensationalized.”
Instead, Kristi said, change should happen because of what happened to her son on that day.
“My son died on school property during school hours and nobody saw him,” Kristi said. “That’s what really happened.”
Her husband jumped in.
“No parent wants their child to die in vain,” Ryan said. “I think every parent who has been through something says ‘now I have a responsibility.’ I have to somehow carry on his legacy. I have to make his life matter. I have to tell his story.”
Aaron’s legacy, his parents said, is to make sure no one is left behind.
Ryan said that in the weeks after his son’s death, he found Aaron’s profile on Roblox, a game he played frequently. In the profile description – a place typically saved for short, unimportant biographical info – Aaron had written a message that’s become a driving force for the Brewer family. Its message? Leave no one behind:
“Finding your way through life is one way of putting it, and while some may walk, run or wander, we typically leave behind those who need guidance the most. Those who are climbing, tripping, and falling along their way, we ignore. We ignore them because we do not see them, as we do most things. However, unlike most things, many of us force our eyes away from these people in need forgetting that those ‘things’ are people, and people aren’t perfect. So if you’re willing to, and ready to make a change, I urge you to open your eyes, to see these beautiful people, and join me in helping those who are hurt, healing those who are wounded, and guiding those who are wandering through life. I realize we might not be able to change the whole world this way; but we can change the part that matters the most, the people who live in it. The above isn’t some copy-paste message, it’s something I believe can change the world if enough people see it.”
CBS 42 reached out to Pelham City Schools for comment on this story but had not heard back as of Wednesday evening.