When a fatal car wreck on Halloween night claimed the lives of a young Georgia couple, state Trooper Nathan Bradley was tasked with delivering the devastating news to their family.
Bradley and two other officials pounded desperately at the front door of Donald and Crystal Howard's home in Newborn. The door finally cracked open. Standing before them were four young children dressed in their Halloween costumes.
Bradley learned that no other adult was home, and that the nearest relative of the couple was a grandmother — seven hours away in Florida — who couldn't get there until the following morning.
The 25-year-old trooper told NBC affiliate WXIA that he was faced with a delicate situation: Keeping the truth from the siblings until their grandmother arrived. On top of that, it was Halloween, and the children — ages 6 to 13 — were in a festive mood.
They said their parents had gone out to buy face paint and Halloween candy, and they were due back any minute.
"The first thing I said was, 'Hey, let's go get something to eat,'" Bradley recalled. "They said, 'My parents will be here soon.' I said, 'Your grandma wants you to hang out with me 'til she gets here."
Through the night, as Bradley waited on their grandmother, he became more than just the children's temporary caretaker — he became their friend.
He distracted them by talking about one of their favorite shows, "Law & Order: SVU," buying them Happy Meals from McDonald's and then taking them to the patrol post to watch Disney movies.
"The eldest son (the 13-year-old), who sat to my right would carry on in conversations that were beyond his age," Bradley wrote in an online post. "We discussed topics such as the observable universe and his father's service with the military. He explained to me that his father served in the United States Army for eight years, completing two tours; one to Afghanistan and the other in Iraq."
News of the orphaned children had spread, and people began arriving to the station bearing buckets of candy and small toys. Once it got late, the kids were taken to beds in the station to sleep until their grandmother arrived.
Bradley said he was stunned when one of the little girls told him he "turned an F-minus day into an A-plus night."
"I can't begin to explain how hard it was to hear that, considering the night would be memorable but for reasons that were yet to be disclosed to them," Bradley wrote.
When grandmother Stephanie Oliver arrived by dawn, Bradley explained what happened to her son and her daughter-in-law, who had been together for more than 15 years. Investigators said their 2015 Dodge Journey went too fast on a curve, and the SUV wound up careening into a ditch and hitting a tree.
"He took care of my kids when they needed them. He was there for them, all the way."
They decided not to wake the children up right away so that the tragedy wouldn't be associated with Halloween. The next morning, Oliver took the children, and Bradley said he heard the 13-year-old: "Hopefully, mom and dad will be home by now."
As a final gesture, Bradley said, he wrote down his number and told the oldest brother to call him if he ever needed anything. The boy later did.
"I was glad he felt comfortable reaching out to me," Bradley wrote. "He told me that it is going to cost his grandparents $7,000 dollars to transport his parents to Florida and the remaining funeral costs."
The trooper helped start a GoFundMe page for the children with hopes of raising the $7,000. By Thursday afternoon, it had raised that and more — with the more than $200,000 going toward a trust fund for their higher education.
The children's grandmother told WXIA that she was touched by the way Bradley bonded with the siblings — and he managed to be a bright spot on what was actually a dark day.
"He took care of my kids when they needed them," Oliver said. "He was there for them, all the way."