Jennifer and Ron Titchenell were outside with their children when they heard the snap.
It came from the trees high above where two of their boys were playing. Within seconds, a large branch tumbled down, striking 7-year-old Steven Richards on the head.
He immediately fell over and curled into a fetal position. His mother picked him up and placed him on the hood of a Chevy Camaro parked in the driveway, where his parents performed CPR. He was breathing and making noises, but there was blood in his mouth. Steven was dying.
As the Titchenells described those panicked moments yesterday, family friend Debbie Smith walked out the back door of the Anne Arundel County home she and her husband have shared with the Titchenells since last fall and sat down.
"I just don't know what to do," said Jennifer Titchenell, 30, her eyes red. "I'm so lost."
"It doesn't get any easier," said Smith, rubbing her friend's arm.
She would know. In a remarkable coincidence, Smith lost her little boy in front of the same house just three months ago, when 2-year-old Derrick "D.J." Smith Jr. wandered onto busy Telegraph Road in Severn to greet his grandfather and was struck by a car.
The family property is still adorned with remembrances of D.J. A memorial of stuffed animals, flowers and candles sits at the base of the mailbox, and messages to him are painted on the windows of a garage. The back windshield of Ron Titchenell's truck features a decal memorializing D.J.
His death had shaken both families, who have lived together since Smith took the Titchenells in while they navigated some family troubles. D.J. was like a little brother to Steven, who carried around his picture in a wallet. They often played in the backyard with its basketball hoop, trampoline and playhouse.
"He was always talking about him, and I tried to shy him off, to tell him not to dwell on it," said Ron Titchenell, 32.
For the Titchenells, D.J.'s death made them more protective of their own four children and particularly wary of their playing anywhere near the highway out front.
"We had become overprotective, I'd say," Jennifer Titchenell said.
Steven and his older brother John, 8, seemed far from danger Wednesday as they played in the driveway, which winds behind the home. Ron Titchenell fiddled with his truck, and Jennifer Titchenell told the boys to go inside and start on their homework and chores. It was about 4:15 p.m.
Police said the tree branch was 4 to 5 inches in diameter and fell about 25 to 30 feet. Ron Titchenell said he first heard the limb break, then watched as it plummeted toward his son. Like a lightning strike, it was almost as if the branch found Steven.
"Why Steven, you know?" he said.
Officers initially checked into the account to determine whether there was another explanation for the boy's injuries, said Sgt. John Gilmer, a county police spokesman.
"There were numerous officers on the scene conducting an investigation, and they found nothing to indicate it was anything other than accident," Gilmer said. "I don't think anyone would expect something like this to occur. It's just very unfortunate."
Paramedics first discussed taking the boy to Johns Hopkins Children's Center, then made arrangements for a Medevac helicopter, the parents said. Ultimately, they decided to take him to Baltimore Washington Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
Ken Brady, a critical care specialist at Johns Hopkins Children's Center, said death from such an injury is rare. He said younger patients are more likely to die from head trauma and a tree branch striking someone in the head could cause a number of injuries, from cracking the skull to causing the brain to swell or even asphyxiation from the blood that his parents saw in his throat.
"Certainly, though, it's an uncommon story," Brady said.
Jennifer Titchenell said she believes that emergency responders waffled and wasted precious seconds. But she also said they had determined he had stopped breathing even before he was whisked away from the property.
Paramedics were on the scene within two minutes of receiving the 911 call, according to Battalion Chief Matthew Tobia, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel County Fire Department. He confirmed that officials initially decided to transport Steven using a Medevac, but the situation quickly changed.
"In the 10-minute time period it took for a helicopter to arrive on location, the child's condition deteriorated, and as a result, a decision was made to take the child to the closest hospital in the hopes of stabilizing the child rather than risk a longer transport," Tobia said. "The Anne Arundel County Fire Department is mindful of the loss of this family, and our thoughts are with them in this most difficult time."
Steven, a first-grader at Richard Henry Lee Elementary School, enjoyed cars, whether it was his dad's truck - which he referred to as "Daddy's hot rod" - or playing with his own Matchbox cars. He was a "happy-go-lucky kid," a thin child with boundless energy who liked to go to work on weekends with Ron Titchenell, who is not his biological father but had raised him.
Grief counselors went from classroom to classroom at Richard Henry Lee yesterday, letting children ask questions or express feelings. Faculty there contributed $1,000 from a vending machine fund to help the family with funeral expenses.
"Steven ... had a heart of gold and nothing made him happier than a hug," said his first-grade teacher, Pat Radford, and kindergarten teacher, Jane Cogswell, in a joint statement released by school officials. "He will be deeply missed. God always takes the sweetest ones first. Look over our angel."
Debbie Smith mused that maybe the house and property are cursed; though their families are now joined in their grief, Smith said she was at a loss for reassuring words for Titchenell: "I don't know how to help them, because I'm still dealing with the same thing."