Alicia Sanders was gathering her three children to go home after flag football practice about 8 p.m. Tuesday when she lost sight of her youngest, 2-year-old Armani Pierce, in a park crowded with people.
Nearly 12 hours later, a police dive team found Armani's body in about six feet of water in an algae-covered bank on the Hillsborough River.
Wednesday evening, hundreds of friends and family members gathered at the same park where Armani wandered away from his mother. Close to where the body of her 2-year-old son was found, Alicia Sanders crouched in front of a memorial with candles, flowers and stuffed animals.
In a calm voice, Sanders, who wore a long purple dress and her braided hair pulled back, spoke to the people close to her about how much she loved her son.
“I really think that was his purpose to bring everybody together,” she said. “I'm sad because he's not here. I'm glad because he's where he's supposed to be. I wouldn't want it any other way.”
At times as she spoke, tears rolled down her cheeks. Other times, she smiled with the memories.
She recalled how Armani would be the first one to wake up and the last to bed. He'd wake up at 6 a.m. ready to watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, she said.
“He's a smart kid, a very, very smart kid,” she said.
When he'd watch his older brother at football practice, he'd go out with the bigger kids and do the warm up exercises, she said.
“They'd run laps and you'd see Armani running right behind the boys,” Sanders said. “He made everybody happy,” she said. “He made everybody laugh.”
Afterward, she placed a lit candle into the water and watched it float. She then said a prayer with the boy's father, Carlos Pierce II, and the boy's paternal grandfather, Carlos Pierce I.
Sanders ended the prayer: “I love you. I love you. I love you so much.”
They then released five purple, silver and gold balloons into the air. A man poured Capri Sun into the river in memory of Armani. In an impromptu move, three young men jumped in the river with their clothes on in honor of the boy.
Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor called the drowning, “every parent's worst nightmare.”
Castor said there was “no indication that it is anything but an accident, a tragic accident that took this young boy's life.” The police chief met with Sanders and Pierce after the body was found.
“We are trying to console the family now and do everything we can for the mother and the father,” Castor said. “It's very tragic, very sad situation that we wished could have had a positive or happy outcome.”
Sanders' two older children are involved with the Tampa Bay Ravens, a youth football team that practices at Temple Crest Park, on North 37th Street next to the river.
Quanda Smith, the team's secretary, said practice was ending and the area was full of people when Sanders turned away for a brief moment, then realized Armani had wandered off.
“He vanished,” Smith said. “He just vanished.”
About 300 people, including residents and Ravens coaches and players, joined in the search.
“We canvassed the area. We searched the neighborhoods,” Smith said. “We didn't want to leave because we didn't know where the baby was.”
A 911 call came after about 20 minutes, at 8:37 p.m., beginning a multi-agency search that included bloodhounds from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
Two of the dogs alerted to an area along the bank, along North Renfrew Place and south of Yukon Street, but there was no sign of the child, Castor said.
“It was a rather shallow shelf there of a few feet deep,” Castor said. “They searched it over and over again in the event he had wandered into the water.”
The boy wasn't found until 7:37 a.m. Wednesday.
“At daybreak, we were able to get a dive unit in to do a more extensive search, and we found his body in approximately 6 feet of water,” Castor said.
Child safety advocate Jean Shoemaker said Armani's death is a painful reminder how a child can slip from the sight of even the most vigilant parent.
“This could've happened at a playdate in a park,” said Shoemaker, the outreach coordinator for the Florida Suncoast Safe Kids Coalition. “You don't live in a bubble and we don't want our children to live in a bubble. You want them to experience everything life has to offer.”
Yet parents can still help ensure children's safety by teaching them to never go near water without an adult and to have multiple layers of supervision, Shoemaker said. At large community gatherings, such as youth football games, parents can ask others to help them supervise their children.
Smith, the football team's secretary, said that throughout the night many people passed by the algae-covered spot of the river where the toddler had fallen in. She estimates that Armani had wandered away about 100 feet from the practice field, crossed the street and went toward the riverbank.
“We were just standing right here last night,” Smith said, shaking her head. Searchers saw a clear patch in the algae and suspected that Armani may have fallen there, she said. Another poked a piece of wood into the algae and swirled it around, but searchers couldn't detect anything.
The boy's great-aunt, Sarah Mosley, 48, said she thinks Armani likely didn't realize that the algae covered the water.
“He probably thought it was grass,” she said.
Anna Mosley, the great aunt of Armani, stood in the crowd at the Wednesday night candleight vigil wearing a pink shirt with a photo of Armani that she had taken.
“Right now I'm just at a loss for words,” said Mosley, 48. “It's tragic for a 2 year old to be taken out of our lives.”
Tribune reporters Keith Morelli and Patrick Welter, and TBO.com producers Rick Mayer and Carl Lisciandrello contributed to this report.