Aaliyah Boyer had hoped to watch the New Year's ball drop on TV, but when she learned she had missed the stroke of midnight by 32 seconds, she returned to the front yard with her friends to watch her neighbors light fireworks.
Nearby, someone apparently fired a gun into the air to add to the celebration. Amid the jubilation, the 10-year-old fell to the ground, the warmth and color draining from her body after she was hit by a falling bullet. Her family initially thought that she had fainted, but the wound would prove fatal.
Aaliyah was pronounced dead Thursday at a Delaware hospital after two days on life support.
Such injuries and deaths from wayward bullets are all too frequent, experts say, especially on holidays such as the Fourth of July and New Year's Eve. In Baltimore, a 4-year-old boy was wounded when a stray bullet hit him in the thigh after a 2011 Independence Day celebration.
The Cecil County death prompted Aaliyah's family to urge people to consider the consequences of firing into the air. "When you shoot a gun, a bullet has to go somewhere," said Crystal Blackburn, Aaliyah's mother. "Don't do that. Don't shoot guns for any reason."
Cecil County sheriff's investigators have no suspects in what appears to be an unprecedented homicide case for the small department. "Nothing like this has ever occurred in Cecil County in my career and to my knowledge," Lt. Michael Holmes said.
Aaliyah's family members said they have not had time to dwell on the long odds that the bullet would hit her. They spent the past few days concentrating on hope for her recovery, then beginning to mourn.
"It's just making it through the next minute," Cheri Blackburn, the girl's step-grandmother, said in her living room as Crystal Blackburn quietly made funeral arrangements on a laptop.
Crystal, 30, and Aaliyah, of Newark, Del., had been visiting Blackburn's father and stepmother on AJS Court in Elkton, a town about an hour northeast of Baltimore. Neighbors in the rustic, wooded community say violence is uncommon. But people do occasionally shoot off guns during the holidays, said Ryan Doyle, 23, who lives a house away from the Blackburns.
Tom Foley, who lives down the street, recognized the sound of gunshots mixing with fireworks early Tuesday but couldn't tell where it was coming from. "You'd hear faint pops and then you would hear what wasn't firework explosions," he said.
The Blackburns had moved into their yellow home, tucked behind giant pine trees down a long driveway, in August and thought they were far from the gunfire of major cities. "I wouldn't have thought anything like this could happen," said James Blackburn, Aaliyah's grandfather.
Such incidents of "celebratory gunfire" causing injury or death are not uncommon in the United States, according to Joseph Vince, director of Mount St. Mary's University's criminal justice program and a former chief of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' crime gun analysis branch.
In the July Fourth shooting from 2011 in Baltimore, city police said the boy was hit in the thigh by a bullet, possibly from celebratory gunfire. He survived his injury.
"This is a plague in the United States, especially on New Year's Eve," Vince said. "There are so many people who are shot or killed because people fire their firearms into the air. If you fire a projectile into the air, it's going to come down."
Vince said the practice among irresponsible gun owners kills dozens of people a year on New Year's and the Fourth of July, and goes back centuries. It began as a superstition, he said.
"It harkens back to the days when people would go outside and create loud noise to scare away the evil spirits for the year. That's what the tradition goes back to," he said.
In Detroit, Vince said, police helicopters have been grounded on New Year's Eve because so many bullets are fired into the sky that it is considered too dangerous for the crews to be deployed.
"It is happening thousands of times, but [the bullet] goes through a porch roof or the roof of a house or a building and nobody hears about it," he said. "But when it strikes people, especially innocents like this, it's tragic."
In the Blackburns' living room, time seems to have stopped while a New Year marches on. The Christmas tree remains lit. Open gift boxes and bags are piled in a corner. Presents Aaliyah forgot to open remain wrapped.
Crystal Blackburn said she tries to keep busy, updating her Facebook page with messages and talking to friends on the phone, so she can avoid dead spots where she has too much time to think.
Her grief was compounded Wednesday when she learned — just after a brain scan showed that her daughter would not recover — that her home in Delaware had been robbed. The three iPads her children had received for Christmas, video game consoles and even her kids' clothes had been stolen, she said.
On Thursday, paramedics transported her mother to the hospital after some sutures from a recent surgery came undone, which Blackburn blames on the stress of losing Aaliyah.
The girl often visited Elkton with her mother and spent days at a local Vacation Bible School. She loved the Jersey Shore and Hannah Montana and decorated her room in all things Justin Bieber. Aaliyah loved sparkly dresses, and her grandfather called her a "lil' princess" because she hated getting dirty.
Her family said she will be buried in Manheim, Pa., where she had once lived, though they haven't completed funeral plans.
Easing their pain, the family said, was the fact that Aaliyah's heart, kidneys, liver and lungs were donated to people in need. The girl had seen her grandmother's driver's license, noticed the organ donor designation, and declared that she would like to do the same thing.
"That's what she would have wanted," Cheri Blackburn said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.
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