An apologetic New York State Department of Transportation has promised to replace a tribute to a dying 8-year-old Ronkonkoma girl that workers destroyed last week during a bridge rehabilitation project.
"It was an error and miscommunication," department spokeswoman Carol Breen said of the demolition of Emily O'Connor's Adopt-A-Spot center median on Friday during the $3.4 million reconstruction effort.
Breen said contractors needed to remove the 75-foot center median -- which sits on Ronkonkoma Avenue near Ninth Street in Ronkonkoma -- to maintain traffic.
The following day, after the girl's family and town officials complained, department officials installed a makeshift center median and created a temporary flower garden on the spot. They promised to restore the tribute once the project is completed sometime in the fall.
But Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward P. Romaine said the state did not have permission to work on the town road and that the tribute, dubbed "Emily's Island," should be restored immediately. "That's unacceptable," he said, threatening to have town employees rebuild the median as soon as possible and bill the transportation department. "This is a supreme mistake," he said.
Breen said they can do nothing for now. "We need that space for construction. That's why the [flower] garden was made."
Kevin O'Connor, 45, Emily's father, said he had just taken the girl to meet her new teacher at Suffolk's Association for the Help of Retarded Children in Bohemia when he was notified that a bulldozer was sitting on top of the tribute.
"This ripped our hearts out," he said. "My initial reaction was anger because I knew somebody screwed up."
Three years ago, Emily was diagnosed with Sanfilippo syndrome, a rare, incurable disorder that prevents the body from properly breaking down sugar molecules.
The National Institutes of Health says the syndrome is an inherited metabolism disorder that causes significant neurological symptoms. Most victims succumb as teenagers.
Town officials and family members say about five Long Island children have the disorder.
"Time is not on our side," said O'Connor, who added that he is focused on bringing awareness to the disorder, which has left Emily unable to speak."It felt as though we were treated like dirt," the father said. "They realize they made a mistake, it was a complete oversight."