Colorado Springs, Colo. -- Billie Lombardo tried to stay calm, but panic overtook her like a swarm of angry bees. Something was wrong with her 2-year-old twins. Kevin lay on the bed lethargic and barely responsive. Seconds earlier Chloe had passed out at the breakfast table and went into convulsions.
Then Chloe stopped breathing.
With hands shaking uncontrollably and fear attempting a hostile takeover of her mind, the frantic mother began trying to administer CPR.
Her eyes caught a glimpse of her two older daughters crying and screaming,
"Don't let our sister die!"
The tragic events that started on Dec. 27, 2005, didn't have a happy ending for Capt. Kevin Lombardo and his wife Billie.
While their son Kevin Jr. miraculously survived, his twin sister Chloe, just more than a month shy of her third birthday, succumbed to an accidental poisoning. She and her brother had managed to get their hands on blood pressure medication and consumed the better part of a bottle of the tiny white pills, as if eating candy.
Since being born 15 minutes apart on Feb. 4, 2003, twins Chloe, who arrived first, and Kevin Jr. were inseparable. They did everything together, from terrorizing the family dog Pepper, to sneaking their dad's Reeses Peanut Butter cups and getting wonderfully yummy -- and messy -- chocolate and peanut butter all over the carpet, the walls and themselves. He called her "Coco," because he had trouble saying Chloe, and she called him "Cage," her interpretation of K.J. They were the perfect "partners in crime."
So what happened exactly? The answers may hit too close to home for a lot of parents, which is why the Lombardos have agreed to tell their heartbreaking story. They don't want others to have to feel their pain -- no one should have to shed the buckets of tears the Lombardos have wept for Chloe.
Kevin, an operations officer with the 21st Security Forces Squadron at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., deployed to Baghdad, Iraq, in early November 2005. He served with Task Force 134, headquarters for all detainee operations in Iraq. He had just spent another Christmas away from home, and he allowed himself a well-deserved moment of brooding.
"How many holidays have I missed with my family now? ... Too many," he said, answering his own question. One-by-one he slowly extended three fingers as he counted silently. "I've missed three Christmases alone in the past 10 years."
He'd probably trade 50 holidays if he could just have one back -- the last Christmas with Chloe in 2005.
Chloe loved the holidays -- especially Christmas. Her favorite toy, book, TV show and clothes were all the same -- Dora the Explorer, or "Dorna" as she called her. Her piercing blue eyes lit up every time she saw Dora, and she'd holler, "Dorna, Mommy! Dorna!"
On Dec. 27, just before midnight in Iraq, Kevin awoke to a nightshift sergeant knocking briskly at his door.
"Sir, you need to call home," the sergeant said.
The hair stood up on Kevin's neck. What could be wrong? He got dressed and grabbed his 9mm handgun -- a constant companion to the captain during his deployment and a cold reality of supporting the war against terrorism.
Kevin hurried out his door and headed to the headquarters building to call home.
Back in Colorado Springs earlier that day, Billie and the four Lombardo children had gathered in the basement of their home. The two older girls, Lexie, who was 9 at the time, and Lidia, who was 6, were watching TV. K.J. and Chloe played tirelessly. So Billie sat down at the computer to read an e-mail from Kevin. While at the computer, Billie didn't notice the twins "sneak" upstairs.
When she finished reading e-mail, Billie went upstairs to fix lunch and saw the adventurous twins. K.J. had laid down for a rest -- probably tuckered from all the hardcore playing. Chloe walked up to her mom and said, "Mommy, I sick."
Sure enough, Chloe did look pale.
"I didn't get overly concerned at that moment, because I thought she was experiencing low blood sugar like her sister, Lidia, did at about the same age," Billie said. "Lidia was hypoglycemic, and Chloe's symptoms looked similar."
Chloe's fair skin and rosy lips were framed by long chestnut brown hair that ended in soft, curly locks. Her beauty was only surpassed by her sweet disposition and a politeness that was beyond her years. She always said please and thank you, and doled out hugs and kisses as if passing out Halloween candy. To call her loveable would be an understatement.
To boost her blood sugar, Billie gave Chloe a glass of chocolate milk and some Lucky Charms. Then she stepped away from her to continue making lunch. Suddenly, her oldest daughter Lexie screamed, "She's falling! She's falling!"
Billie turned just in time to see Lexie catch Chloe as the preschooler passed out.
She grabbed her youngest daughter and laid her near her brother. She also noticed K.J., who she thought had been resting, was actually lethargic.
Then, something else caught her eye.
An opened bottle of blood pressure medication sat near K.J. A few of the tiny white pills lay scattered nearby -- all that was left of what had been a nearly full bottle.
"Oh my God!" Billie screamed, as the horrifying realization filled her mind.
She tried to shake the twins awake and hollered at Lexie to call 911. Lidia ran to the neighbor's house to get help.
Then Chloe went into convulsions.
"I freaked out," Billie said.
And things only got worse.
A neighbor arrived and watched over K.J., who was now awake and aware. That allowed Billie to focus on Chloe. While Billie was on the phone with the 911 operator, Chloe stopped breathing.
"Lexie and Lidia were hysterical," Billie said, as her voice cracked and a tear rolled down her cheek. "They kept screaming, 'Don't let my sister die! Don't let my sister die!' "
Chloe adored her big sisters and would often cuddle on the couch with them while watching TV. And, when given the chance, she'd also go through their coloring books, with the carefully colored pictures, and "improve" their work with her own free-style artistic interpretation.
The 911 operator tried to keep Billie calm and walked her through the lifesaving steps of CPR.
Meanwhile, the paramedics arrived and took over.
When they restored her breathing, the paramedics put Chloe in an ambulance and rushed her to the emergency room at nearby Memorial Hospital. A second ambulance took K.J. and Billie.
Billie didn't know it at the time, as medics shielded him from her sight, but K.J. stopped breathing in the ambulance. The paramedics saved his life.
"Once we got to the hospital, Kevin was awake," Billie said. "So they gave him liquid charcoal to help combat the effects of the medication."
But doctors told Billie they couldn't give Chloe the liquid charcoal because she was unconscious. They said she had obviously taken a lot more of the pills than K.J. had.
Back in Iraq, Kevin had managed to reach a friend of the family who told him the twins had been rushed to the hospital. He didn't have any other details.
"I didn't know what was going on," he said. "Had they fallen or been in a car accident? When I finally got through to the emergency room, they put Billie on the line. But she couldn't even speak; she was sobbing too hard."
A doctor took the phone from Billie, and told Kevin what had happened.
"The doctor was extremely concerned about Chloe," Kevin said.
Chloe was strong and determined, and she loved to dig. She'd get one of her mom's cooking spoons, go out in the backyard, and dig and dig and dig. Billie would ask Chloe, "Where you diggin' to, China?" Pleased as punch, Chloe would always flash her white teeth and respond matter-of-factly, "Yeah."
Still not grasping exactly how serious the situation was, Kevin asked the doctor, "Do I need to come home?"
The doctor paused a few seconds ... "Yes," he said.
Getting home from Baghdad proved to be a difficult task. Just to get to a C-130 at the airport, the captain had to hop into a Humvee and travel a perilous route, known to be a favorite target of enemy mortar rounds. It took five connecting flights and 36 hours before Kevin made it back to the United States.
He arrived on American soil in Atlanta ... 16 minutes after his little girl had died.
"That news hit me like a bag of rocks," the grieving father said. "It was a tough moment. ... I couldn't protect them."
About a half hour earlier, as Chloe still lay clinging to life, Billie massaged her daughter's limbs to keep the blood flowing.
"As I'm doing this, I noticed Chloe's legs were getting stiff and cold," Billie said. She paused to wipe the tears streaming uncontrollably from her eyes. "I looked at the doctor and said, 'Just tell me the truth!' The doctor said, 'It doesn't look good. She's just not responding. Her liver and kidneys are failing.' "
A short time later, Chloe flat-lined.
As doctors fought to bring her daughter back, Billie dropped to the floor and screamed for God to take her instead.
Overcome by grief, Billie then got sick and threw up.
Chloe Bella Lombardo died at 12:29 p.m. on Dec. 29, 2005.
"When they stopped working on her and said she couldn't be saved, I was mad ... so mad," Billie said, furrowing her brow. "I was mad at the doctors, I was mad at God, and ... I was mad at me."
Chloe could always cheer up her mom if she felt sad or angry. She'd rub her mom's back with her little hand, and say, "It's OK, Mommy." Or she'd sing her favorite song, "You Are My Sunshine." And who could resist the butterfly kisses that would make her giggle?
Billie walked over to Chloe and cradled her. That's how Kevin found her a few hours later when he finally arrived.
"When I saw Billie, we just held each other and held Chloe," Kevin said. "Need-less to say, it was pretty emotional."
As Chloe lost her struggle for life, K.J. surprisingly grew stronger and stronger. He even got to go home the next day.
Still white as a ghost from his ordeal, the first thing K.J. said when he arrived home was, "Where's Coco?" That set off a wave of emotions throughout the house.
"How do you tell a 2-year-old that his twin sister is dead -- that he just lost his best friend forever?" Kevin said.
The explanation is one that will haunt the Lombardos for the rest of their lives, and it should serve as a warning to others.
Located in a cupboard above the kitchen sink area, the deadly blood pressure medication appeared to be safely out of reach of the 2-year-olds. However, it seems the twins opened a Lazy Susan (a kitchen cabinet with a revolving door and shelves), located at ground level. They used the shelves as steps to climb to the countertop. They then opened the top cupboard and reached the medication. After climbing back down, they managed to pry open the child-resistant cap with their teeth and ate the contents.
All of this happened in a matter of minutes -- the time it took to read and respond to an e-mail message.
"Kids are active, smart and determined," Kevin said. "This happens every day in America. Our message is don't let it happen to you. Lock up medicine and household chemicals."
As a matter of fact, poison centers handle an average of one poison exposure every 14 seconds -- more than 2 million exposures in the United States annually, according to the American Association of Poison Control. More than 90 percent of these poisonings occur in the home.
"If we can reach even one family and save just one child," Billie said, "... then Chloe's death won't have been in vain."
K.J. saw his twin sister for the last time lying in her casket at a memorial service in Bainbridge Township, 30 miles east of Cleveland, where his father grew up. He looked at her quizzically, and said, "Coco sleepin' ..."