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Wild ride for Duluth 4-year-old behind the wheel of van

When Rebecca Lawrence stopped at the day care to pick up her three children Thursday afternoon, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. But that changed in a heartbeat after her 4-year-old son, Layton, playfully slipped into the driver's seat of the family's idling van.

"Somehow, he put it in gear," Lawrence said. "I was maybe 5 feet away from the van when it started to roll. I grabbed for the handle, but he had locked the door."

Lawrence quickly put down the car seat in which she'd been carrying her 3-month-old son, Nico, to the vehicle. She began to run alongside the van, imploring Layton to unlock the door. But the frightened 4-year-old was paralyzed with fear.

"I think he was really scared. He looked like he was seeing a ghost," Lawrence said. "He didn't know what to do, but he had a death grip on that steering wheel."

Meanwhile, the vehicle began to pick up speed as it rolled down the steeply sloped driveway of the day care at 2605 W. Skyline Parkway.

"It started going really fast, and that's when I thought maybe he was going to die," Lawrence said, recalling the panicked moment when she could no longer keep pace with the rolling van.

Mandi Gravelle was in the van's passenger seat at the time, but Lawrence said her friend does not drive and was at a loss to stop the unfolding events.

Janet Olson was in her home across the street from the day care when the vehicle finally came to a stop against the stone exterior of her house.

"I heard a big bang. And I thought that maybe it was a gas explosion or something," she said.

Remarkably, Layton, who was not belted into the vehicle, was not injured in the crash. An incredulous Lawrence said she brought her son to urgent care, just to make sure he was OK, but medical staff gave him a clean bill of health.

Lawrence said her friend, Gravelle, suffered a rib sprain but no other serious injuries.

For her part, Lawrence said she lost a shoe and twisted her knee while chasing the runaway vehicle. She was so concerned for others immediately after the accident that Lawrence didn't realize her own injury until later.

Lawrence's van, while still drivable, appeared the worse for wear. But Lawrence isn't complaining.

"I could care less about the van," she said. "My son is what I care about."

Olson estimates the van traveled about 150 feet, cut between two trees and jumped a 1-foot tall brick border before it struck her home. She said the wall of her house appears undamaged, although red paint from Lawrence's van and several battered hydrangeas serve as a reminder of last week's excitement.

Lawrence said she doesn't usually leave her vehicle running at the daycare, and vowed: "I definitely won't do that again."

But she said Layton's appetite for driving is greatly diminished.

"To tell you the truth, I think he's scared of the van now," Lawrence said.