Editor's Note: Some may find the graphic material in this post disturbing.
"I remember taking the gun out," says Sean Smith. "My sister was off to the side of the room."
Smith, now 36, was just 10 years old at the time. He had arrived home after school with his 8-year-old sister, Erin. Their parents weren't home yet, so they'd gone searching for hidden video games in their father's dresser drawer.
That's when Sean Smith found a .38 revolver.
"I distinctly remember her saying, 'You should put it back' — and she ran across as my finger hit the trigger," Smith says. "It went off and, in a flash, she was down."
As his ears were ringing from the shot, he picked up his sister and set her in his lap. He held his hand over the wound as he called 911; he attempted CPR and got no response. His sister was dead.
When a police officer finally arrived, he pulled Smith into another room and sat him down.
"I was just trying to wrap my 10-year-old mind around what had happened — that, you know, in an instant, my sister wasn't there anymore," Smith tells his mother, Lee, on a recent visit with StoryCorps.
He asks her: What does she remember about the day Erin died?
"It was just a blur, to be honest with you," Lee Smith tells her son. "You know, when something happens — like when a crime happens — you're mad at this person. But we had nobody to get mad at, because how can you get mad at a 10-year-old little boy?"
Afterward, Smith would have conversations with his father. His father tried to reassure him that it wasn't his fault — even, Smith thinks in retrospect, struggling with his own feelings of guilt. But those conversations didn't help.
"I mean, any little mention or memory of Erin would break me down, and, you know, I'd be a crying mess," Smith says. "We were only a year apart, and we definitely had that sibling love."
His mother has struggled with the pain of the accident, too.
"I had the hardest time when people asked me how many children I have. They go, 'Oh, what's their ages?' And I say, '41, 36 and eternally 8.' "
And she's seen it change her son. "When you were younger," she tells him, "it seemed to me that you just pushed it aside. But as you got older it seemed to come more to the surface."
He dropped out of high school, abused drugs. He was on a dark track — "but then my son Dylan was born," he says, "and I didn't want to go back to that life anymore. So my son pretty much saved my life."
If she could speak to Erin today, Lee Smith says, she would love to be able to tell her daughter that Sean is OK now.
"But I'm worried you're not," she tells him. "I'm worried that this is going to haunt you forever."
"I would want to tell her I'm sorry," Sean Smith says. "I regret every single thing that happened that day. And I wish one day that I'll be good.
"And it'd be nice to finally say that and, you know, mean it."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall and Andrés Caballero.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Time now for StoryCorps and remembering a terrible accident in 1989. Ten-year-old Sean Smith arrived home after school with his sister, Erin, who was 8. Their parents weren't there, so the siblings went looking for hidden video games. In their father's dresser drawer, Sean found a gun. Sean, who's now 36, came to StoryCorps with his mother, Lee, to talk about what happened next. A warning before we play this tape - it is graphic and disturbing.
SEAN SMITH: I remember taking the gun out. My sister was off to the side of the room. I distinctly remember her saying you should put it back. And she ran across just as my finger hit the trigger. It went off and in a flash she was down. My ears were ringing, and I remember picking her up and sitting her in my lap. I had my hand over the wound, and I grabbed the phone and I was calling 911 trying to talk to the operator.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
S. SMITH: I didn't know my dad's gun was loaded and I shot her.
I remember trying to do CPR on her, but there was no response to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
S. SMITH: She's dead.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: She's dead?
S. SMITH: Yes, please get my mom and dad. Oh, my God.
Once the cop got there, I remember him bringing me into the living room and sitting me down. And, you know, I was just trying to wrap my 10-year-old mind around what had happened, that, you know, in an instant my sister wasn't there anymore. What do you remember about that day that Erin died?
LEE SMITH: It was just a blur, to be honest with you. You know, when something happens - like, when a crime happens, you're mad at this person, but we had nobody to get mad at 'cause how can you get mad at 10-year-old little boy? Do you remember any conversations you had with your dad at that time?
S. SMITH: I just remember him saying it's not your fault. But I couldn't help but blame myself at that point, you know? I didn't even think of where he might have felt some guilt as well. I mean, any little mention or memory of Erin would break me down, and, you know, I would be a crying mess.
L. SMITH: Even though you fought like brothers and sisters, whenever there was a picture opportunity, you always put your arm around her like you were protecting her.
S. SMITH: Yeah. We were only a year apart, and we definitely had that sibling love.
L. SMITH: You know, I had the hardest time when people asked me how many children I have. And they'd go, oh, what's their ages? And I say 41, 36 and eternally 8.
S. SMITH: How did you see this change me?
L. SMITH: When you were younger, it seemed to me that you just pushed it aside. But as you got older, it seemed to come more to the surface.
S. SMITH: Yeah. I dropped out of high school, got introduced drugs, and cocaine was definitely a big factor in my drug use. But then my son Dylan was born, and I didn't want to go back to that life anymore. So my son pretty much saved my life. If you could speak to Erin now, what would you want her to know?
L. SMITH: I'd love to be able to tell her that you are OK, but I'm worried that you're not. I worry that this is going to haunt you forever.
S. SMITH: I would want to tell her I'm sorry. I regret every single thing that happened that day. And I wish one day that I'll be good, and it'd be nice to finally say that and, you know, and mean it.
L. SMITH: And mean it (laughter).
S. SMITH: Yeah.
KELLY: Sean Smith with his mother, Lee, at StoryCorps in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. They were remembering their sister and daughter Erin Smith, who died on June 5, 1989. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.