A year of grief: Mother recalls tragic day she lost her daughter

Jasmine Mateen, center, holds her son Quamar as she draws with her daughter Zasmyn, right, and other son Quanderious at their home on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Three of Jasmine Mateen's children, including Zasmyn, were on Hamilton County school bus 366 which crashed on Talley Road. Her 6-year-old daughter Z'yaira, nicknamed "Phat Phat," was killed in the crash along with five other children from Woodmore Elementary School.

Jasmine Mateen got a new couch in January. The dark-tan fabric matched the living room walls. Its frame squeezed perfectly between the front door and kitchen, and the cushions were easy to sink into.

It was time to make some new memories with the children, Mateen thought. They sat, drew pictures, made fun of baby Qamar's love of foot massages. They ignored the patched-up hole in the wall behind them, the one Phat Phat made when she hurled a ball through the living room. And they ignored Phat Phat's room to their right, the one Mateen couldn't rearrange for months. No matter what she replaced, though, there was one memory Mateen couldn't ignore.

On Nov. 20, 2016, she and Phat Phat watched Disney movies on the old couch until bedtime.

"OK, mama, you can watch whatever you want," Phat Phat announced. "I'm going to sleep."

The 6-year-old snored so loud Mateen had to roll her to the other side of the couch.

The next day, Zyaira "Phat Phat" Mateen boarded bus 366 and died after it overturned on Talley Road in Brainerd and wrapped around a walnut tree. The crash killed six of the 37 Woodmore Elementary School children onboard and injured dozens more. The youngest was 6, the oldest 11.

photo Zasmyn Mateen poses for a portrait in her home on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Three of Jasmine Mateen's children, including Zasmyn, were on Hamilton County school bus 366 which crashed on Talley Road. Her 6-year-old daughter Z'yaira, nicknamed "Phat Phat," was killed in the crash along with five other children from Woodmore Elementary School.

It has been a year now, but Mateen, 28, is struggling just as much as she did that day.

Sleeping pills don't work. Neither do anxiety and depression medications. Then there's court proceedings and grief counseling. Every moment felt so cursed Mateen wanted to scream - and sometimes did - in front of her husband and children.

But a new couch was like shedding bad memories. It meant living with one less artifact from her old life on Germantown Road. She couldn't rearrange Phat Phat's room. Not during her birth month.

And Mateen knew she couldn't return to a time before the crash, no matter how much she dreamed about it. In this new world, small things became big things. Couches became more than couches.

But would it be enough?


Mateen thought she knew how to handle death.

Her older brother, Desmond Quintrell Brown, died at the age of 26 from inflammation around the heart in June 2013. A year later, her 21-year-old cousin, Inez Burney, was strangled to death.

To memorialize their lives, Mateen gave one of her children, Zy'Heaven, the middle name of My'Chance. Then came May 17, 2015, when Mateen found the 5-month-old had died unexpectedly in her sleep. Sudden infant death syndrome, the doctors called it.

Nothing could have prepared her for Nov. 21.

That morning, Phat Phat put on a gold-and-pink jacket with leopard print and gasped at her hair.

"Mama, can you fix my edges?" she asked. "They are out of control!"

Mateen did, like she'd done so many times before.

"Thank you, mama," Mateen recalled her saying. "I love you, and I'll see you when I get home from school."

And that was it.

Strange things happened all day, Mateen said.

Crows in the driveway. Dreams about a terrible crash. The hospital saying her newborn, Quanderious, needed to stay overnight. The police cars tearing down Talley Road when she and her husband, Qadir Mateen, stopped at a fast-food restaurant.

Then it was 3:24 p.m., and Mateen's oldest daughter, Zacauree'A Brown, was calling from a police officer's cellphone.

"Mommy, mommy! Phat Phat! Phat Phat! Phat Phat!"

Mateen could barely register the officer's words when he came on the line: "There's been a bad bus crash on Talley Road off of Rogers Road."

Two minutes later, she and her husband were the first parents on the scene. Police cars. Fire trucks. Children emerging from smoke. She saw the bus overturned and Zacauree'A running toward her with her sister Zasmyn.

"Oh my god," Mateen thought.

Zacauree'A was panting: "We can't find Phat Phat."

Zasmyn tried to speak but couldn't. She took off one shoe and threw it. Zasmyn, who had been sitting next to Phat Phat on the bus, screamed toward the yellow tape: "Phat Phat, please come back! I'm sorry!"

Qadir Mateen watched the back of the bus as first responders pulled out children. But no one could find Phat Phat.

Jasmine Mateen left to scour local hospitals - Memorial, East Ridge, Parkridge, Erlanger. Nothing.

She drove back to the crash scene. She'd heard some children were thrown out of the windows. Maybe Phat Phat was one of them. Maybe a neighbor grabbed her. It was too dark to look, but she heard new information: Officers had just taken five children to Erlanger.

"Did you find Phat Phat?" Zasmyn asked at the hospital. She was medicated and wearing a neck brace.

"We're still looking," Mateen said.

"That's because she's dead," Zasmyn replied.

In the lobby, there was pandemonium - school board members, pastors, police officers, paramedics, teachers and 37 families and all of their friends.

A nurse who spoke to Mateen earlier in the night stopped her, walked her down a long hall and into a conference room. Multiple police officers stood along the walls. It was about 11:45 p.m.

Doctors came through the door, then a detective. The detective asked what Phat Phat was wearing. A gold-and-pink jacket with leopard print, Mateen said.

"I'm sorry for your loss," he said.

For a moment, nothing registered. Then, Mateen screamed. She ran out of the room hollering that she wanted the people responsible for the crash to feel her pain. An officer held her. "You can't think like that," she recalled him saying. "She's in a better place."

Mateen found her husband walking down a nearby hallway.

"Baby," Mateen cried. "She's dead!"

Qadir Mateen threw his pizza and drink against the wall and fell to his knees crying.


Mateen could have written a book on death, she'd seen it so much.

To survive, she'd developed a set of rules: Don't fight the grief. Learn to forgive God. Stay off Facebook as much as you can.

But this time was different.

The crash was national news and every family member's tragedy became a public spectacle.

Lawyers called from Chicago. Reporters from Buzzfeed, CNN and The New York Times rapped on her door. Most famously, Mateen told a TV station in Alabama that she reported the driver's carelessness to the school board in the weeks leading up to the crash.

Beyond the public grief, though, most people didn't know what Mateen was going through.

She and Qadir Mateen met over a dating app in 2008 and married about two years later. Now their almost seven-year marriage was struggling. She couldn't touch her newest child, either, except to breastfeed. He looked too much like Phat Phat.

Work was worse. Mateen got fired from one job when she didn't show up the day after the crash. Then, earlier this fall, a new manager mentioned Phat Phat.

"I flipped clean out," Mateen said, and she was fired.

If she slept at all, Mateen dreamed of Phat Phat:

It was Dec. 19, 2016. The clouds were low to the ground, the grass was bright green. She and Phat Phat were playing near a white castle in the distance. And then they were on the old couch, and Phat Phat was braiding her hair, like she often did.

They didn't speak until Mateen started to wake up.

"Mama, don't cry," Phat Phat said. "I'm OK."

Another time, while sleeping on the couch, Mateen felt a shake. She turned around, thinking it was her husband, and saw Phat Phat and Zy'Heaven in matching white dresses.

Zy'Heaven was 5 months old when she died, but now she looked like a 2-year-old and had pigtails. Zyaira, who had a missing front tooth when she died, now had a full smile.

They waved for a while, then started to walk away.

"Don't go!" Mateen called after them.

"Oh, mama," Phat Phat said, "I have to."

Mateen could process Zy'Heaven and her brother Desmond's deaths. They didn't unnecessarily suffer. They passed quickly. But this?

"How can God put a child through so much pain?" Mateen asked. "A little, bitty 47-pound body. A 6-year-old baby.

"And you still believe there's a God?"


On a recent day, Mateen pointed to a rope swing in her front yard. Zasmyn played nearby while a cool breeze blew.

"Phat Phat put that in the tree," Mateen said. "I have not taken it down. And that rope swings even when it's not windy out sometimes.

"All the strangest things happen," she said. "Butterflies always land on me. I googled it, and it says it's from your loved ones, showing you they're still here. But I don't really need any butterflies to show me that.

"I still feel her presence."

Inside, dried flowers from Phat Phat's funeral swirled inside of a dusty vase.

Mateen said she and the family are relocating to Nashville. Her husband has relatives there, she said, and maybe she'll be able to work again. Maybe her kids won't be surrounded by public reminders of their tragedy.

"Nashville is peaceful," Mateen said. "A lot of people don't know me there."

Outside, the wind was picking up. Acorns plunged to the ground, bouncing off car hoods and garbage can lids.

In this world, acorns are more than acorns.

Zasmyn grabbed a handful, began to unpeel the top layers, and one by one, spread them around Phat Phat's swing.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.

Woodmore Elementary school bus crash