They gathered outside St. Thomas More School on a picture perfect Friday afternoon, 600 children clutching balloons, eager to honor their friend and classmate.
By JUDY L. THOMAS
The Kansas City Star
At 2:10 p.m., all in unison and with a hearty cheer, they sent the balloons airborne in a massive wave of red, white and blue.
Then they looked upward and watched as the soaring balls became smaller and smaller, blending into the sky.
And like their teachers and the adults streaming into the church nearby, they hoped to comfort the grieving family of 10-year-old Luke Alexander Bresette.
The Overland Park fifth-grader, whose tragic death in an Alabama airport touched lives from coast to coast, will be laid to rest today after a memorial service at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in south Kansas City.
The Bresettes were returning home from a spring break trip to Destin, Fla., on March 22 when a heavy flight information sign toppled on several family members in a newly renovated section of Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. The accident killed Luke and critically injured his mother, Heather, who suffered two broken ankles and a broken pelvis. She was released from the hospital last Saturday.
Sam, 8, had a broken leg and nose, and Tyler, 5, suffered a concussion. The children’s father, Ryan, and Luke’s older brother and sister, Joe and Anna, were not injured.
Ryan Bresette on Friday joined the group for the balloon launch, wearing a white jersey and walking through the crowd, high-fiving some of the students.
All the Bresette children were there, Sam on crutches and Tyler clutching a stuffed animal.
The Rev. Don Farnan spoke to the children about Luke.
“We know that he is going to live forever more in our hearts,” he said. “He is now with God in heaven above. He is playing with the angels and checking out that field of dreams.”
Sorrow looks down, Farnan said, but faith looks up.
“When you’re missing Luke, you can look up to the skies,” he said.
Then St. Thomas More Principal Brian Borgmeyer told the children to release their balloons: “May these balloons rise to take our prayers to Luke.”
After the launch, as the children filed silently back inside, Luke’s classmates lingered in the parking lot with their arms around each other. Ryan Bresette joined them as they huddled, then had them stack their hands in a pile, raise them in the air and shout, “Luke!”
The tragedy — so random that it could have happened to anyone — rippled across the country. People wanted to do something — anything — to show their support for the family.
In Birmingham, Tammy Woolley started a Facebook page where people could offer prayers and condolences. An alumni group for a law enforcement citizens’ academy in Birmingham raised thousands of dollars for the family.
In the Kansas City area, friends immediately filled up the slots on an online site to deliver meals to the family. A Louisiana artist painted a picture of Luke and Jesus and sent it to Luke’s parents.
Woolley’s Facebook page, Praying for the Bresettes, now has more than 3,400 followers. People have posted messages to the family from Fort Worth to Minneapolis, from La Quinta, Calif. to West Orange, N.J., from Dalton, Ga., to Raleigh, N.C., to Houston.
“I’ve lived in Alabama all my life, and I feel horrible that it happened here,” said Woolley, who lives in the Birmingham suburb of Vestavia Hills. “It was just something about it being here, a place you just always associate with Southern hospitality and everything being laid-back, and to have such a horrid, horrid thing happen.”
Woolley said she tried to think of something she could do.
“And I just thought the one thing we could do was pray for them and uplift them,” she said. “And I’ve been amazed at the outpouring from folks who just want to say we’re sorry, we can’t take your pain away, but we feel for you.”
Woolley said that when she created the page she noticed there were two other Facebook sites for the family. She sent a message to one and learned it was set up by a 14-year-old boy who attended school with the Bresette children.
“He’s a fabulous kid, and he wanted to do something for his friends,” Woolley said. “He wanted to help raise funds, and we were bouncing things back and forth.”
That boy, Chase Torgerson of Kansas City, is an eighth-grader at St. Thomas More School who said he wanted to do whatever he could to help Luke's family.
“Luke was in my Boy Scout troop,” said Chase, who also has started selling bumper stickers and pins for Luke. “He was a good kid, really fun to hang out with. I want to give them the money to use however they need, maybe on medical bills.”
Woolley said she also heard about a fund set up by the FBI Birmingham Citizens Academy Alumni Association, so she promoted it on her page.
The group has raised more than $9,000 for the Bresettes, an official said Friday.
Heather White, past president of the FBI Birmingham Citizens Academy Alumni Association and an officer with the national FBI Citizens Academy, said the group was happy to help with fundraising. Ryan Bresette is a member of the group’s sister organization in Kansas City.
“You try to put yourself in their shoes and it’s almost impossible,” she said. “As soon as we found out, we immediately reached out to them to say, ‘Hey, there’s a group here in town that’s ready and able to assist you should you need it.’ ”
At the same time, White said, the mayor’s office in Birmingham was fielding calls from the community.
“Some people are writing messages with their donations,” she said. “One said, ‘I don’t know you, but I’m so sorry this happened to your family while you’re in my hometown.’ ”
She noted that the section of the airport where the accident occurred had just opened after a $200 million renovation.
“I had flown out the week before, the second day it was open,” she said. “And after the accident I thought, ‘How many thousands of people go through that airport?’ It could have been anybody. And I think that’s what has touched so many people.”
Like the artist from Louisiana. The Bresettes loved the hand-painted picture, which depicts Jesus with a broad grin and his arms wrapped around Luke.
Uncle Alex Bresette said Friday that the family doesn’t know who painted the picture, but would love to know more about it.
“They sent it here to the church,” he said. “That painting... meant the world to the Bresette family.”
Others in the Birmingham area stepped up to help as well, including Bishop Robert J. Baker, of the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham. He said that retired Bishop Raymond J. Boland of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, who is a former bishop of Birmingham, contacted his office as soon as he learned about the accident.
The Birmingham diocese also collected donations for the family.
“I was able to get my cathedral parish on Palm Sunday to do the initial gift and I was able to take it to them,” Baker said. “The mayor of our city visited them as well, and so have former members of the University of Alabama football team.
“The children are very much into athletics, all of them, and it was a big boost to help them in their spirits.”
The Bresettes have been moved by the tremendous outpouring of compassion.
Alex Bresette said on Friday that he had just talked to Luke’s mom, Heather.
“And something she wanted me to share was thank you for the thoughts, the prayers, the love, the support, the cards, messages, not just from St. Thomas More, not just from Kansas City, but literally from across the country and in some cases around the world,” he said.
“The support of everyone has made a tragic time more bearable.”
He said the family had one request: To keep the prayers coming.
“We’re going to have a hole in our hearts for a long time.”
Luke’s siblings “are doing great,” their uncle said.
“They’re resilient,” he said. “They’ve had some tough moments, and it’s going to get tougher. They’re back in school. Tyler’s already started baseball practice and Ryan’s coaching it. So the new normal is on the way.”
He said Heather would likely be in a wheelchair for a few months.
“But she’s tough, she’s feisty, she’s independent. She’s an awesome woman. She’s going to be back in no time.”
In some cases, the simplest gestures have meant a lot.
When one Overland Park man heard about Luke, he realized that his family had run into the Bresettes while vacationing in Destin at the same time. They had all gone on a Buccaneer pirate kids’ cruise, and the man remembered the Bresettes because of the five children and the Kansas City Royals T-shirts the boys were wearing.
He went back over the video he’d taken that day and found Luke in a lot of the footage. So he made a copy for the Bresettes — some of the last video they have of their son.
Family members will say goodbye today to the dimpled boy who smiled a lot because he knew it would make others happy.
Luke’s memorial service starts at 10:05 a.m.
“You might be wondering why 10:05?” Ryan Bresette wrote Wednesday on Facebook. “Well, Luke was an avid sports fan and Major League Baseball games start at five after.”
People will be gathering at the same time in Avondale Park in Birmingham for a moment of silence to remember Luke. That includes youths in the Southside Ball Association, who will pause their baseball games in a show of respect.
“Luke’s funeral will began at 10:05 in Kansas and we will, too,” wrote Don Lupo, director of the Mayor’s Office of Citizens Assistance, on his Facebook page Thursday. “Wear your favorite team shirt and let’s honor Luke and family.”
Luke “loved everything about life,” according to his obituary, part of which is written as though he is talking.
“If there was a sport, I played it,” the obituary says. “If there was a game, I played it. I studied when I had to and I loved my teachers even if they had to occasionally get after me.”
He couldn’t wait to play baseball on the same team as his brother, Sam, this spring, with his dad as the coach. And he looked forward to Boy Scout Camp this summer with Troop 601 and to someday becoming an Eagle Scout like his dad.
“I wish I had more time to spend with all of you but Jesus must have needed me more,” his obituary says. “I will watch over all of you until we meet again.”
And his family responds in a message just for Luke: “We love and miss you every hour of every day.”
And so do his friends and classmates.
After Friday’s balloon launch, “It was emotional when we came back inside,” Chase Torgerson said. “A lot of kids were crying.”
But releasing the balloons created a lasting memory for everyone, he said.
“It was cool watching them go up in the sky,” he said. “I’m hoping they went to Luke.”
To reach Judy L. Thomas, call 816-234-4334 or send email to email@example.com.