A dozen pairs of adult shoes sat outside a door at the Frontier Motel on South Broadway. Inside, friends and family of 12-year-old Suhani Bhakta mourned and prayed.
They took off their shoes Tuesday before they walked across the carpet of a living room, decorated with motifs of India, their native country. They went inside to comfort Suhani’s parents, Chuck and Shruti Bhakta.
On Sunday night, Suhani died after a Wichita police officer’s patrol car struck her as she darted into Broadway, on her way to the Dillons grocery store across from the Frontier. The motel is her family’s business, and it was her home. She lived with her younger sister, her parents and paternal grandparents. The motel sits in a neighborhood of Indian-owned businesses along Broadway from Kellogg to Pawnee.
Suhani was a bright seventh-grader at Mayberry Middle School.
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A police official said Monday that the officer who struck the girl was on his way to a burglary occurring at an automotive business on First Street. The officer, following policy in such situations, was driving without emergency lights or sirens. Investigators are looking at whether an SUV traveling on Broadway obstructed the officer’s view; the officer braked hard but still hit the girl, the official said. Police dispatched the Critical Incident Team to help the officer and other officers — who tried to aid the girl — deal with the trauma.
On Tuesday, at one end of the Bhakta family’s living room, the girl’s mother sat on a small couch with a comforter drawn up around her, beneath a large picture of her two daughters taken when they were small children.
Several sad-eyed women hovered protectively around Shruti Bhakta, who was struggling to hold back tears.
Several somber-faced men lined a wall next Suhani’s father. He stared ahead.
At a laundry business down the street, an aunt, Jaya Narsai, said, “We can only imagine what the parents are going through. We’ve not been there.”
But friends and family deeply feel the loss, she said. “We’ve seen her grow up. We’ve been with her (for) her whole life.”
The community is gathering with the family to pray. In their Hindu faith, Suhani’s soul will go forward, and she will be reincarnated. They are praying that she will be reborn into a spiritual family, Narsai said.
At the other end of the Bhaktas’ living room, a table displayed pictures of Suhani. Rose bouquets had been placed in front of her portraits. In the middle of the table, a small flame glowed in a bowl of ghee oil, made from butter and used for candles and in cooking.
Shruti Bhakta’s exhausted face broke into a smile as she described her daughter as a straight-A student. Suhani’s teachers were “so proud of her,” she said. The seventh-grader took assignments with her on an extended trip to India so she wouldn’t get behind. She wanted to be a dentist.
Her paternal grandparents are on their way back to Wichita from a trip to India. Chuck Bhakta said his father is so consumed by grief after being told of his granddaughter’s death that he can’t speak. “His heart is very broke down.”
At the laundry business near the motel, Narsai, Suhani’s aunt, noted that Suhani had lived for years along the busy, four-lane street near downtown. “It’s not like that was the first time she had gone over,” across the street, she said.
“She was an angel. If you told her to do something, she was always in the right place at the right time. You could walk away and know she was doing the right thing.
“She got along with each and every kid in the community.”
School officials have reached out to the family, asking “How can we help? How can we help?” she said.
What people can do is pray, relatives said.
“We’re all dealing with this in the best way we can,” Narsai said. “It’s in God’s hands.
“She will be in our hearts for the rest of our lives.”