Sunday, November 30, 2003, was the last day of Kemar Campbell's Thanksgiving vacation. There's no way he could have known it would be the last day of his life.
The 17-year-old spent that afternoon playing basketball. By 4:15, he and his brothers had wrapped up their game and were walking back to their house from the courts at west Fort Lauderdale's Riverland Elementary, where all three had attended school.
Kemar and his brothers, 13-year-old Kerron and 15-year-old Kevon, walked down busy West Davie Boulevard, bouncing the ball, joking. As the trio passed an old storefront restaurant, a Chinese mom-and-pop joint called Shanghai Garden, Kemar made an impulsive, split-second decision.
For reasons no one fully understands, Kemar reached out and smacked one of the restaurant's plate-glass windows. With a sickening, brittle crash, it shattered. Kemar lost his balance and fell forward -- directly into the center of the broken pane.
A razor-sharp piece on the bottom immediately sliced his wrist clear through to the bone. A long, pointed dagger of glass dislodged above him and dropped, guillotining his neck so deeply that it not only severed his jugular vein instantly but punctured his lung.
Somehow, Kemar managed to pick himself up from the shattered window and stagger back to the sidewalk. His shocked brothers could only watch in horror. Blood was literally shooting from Kemar's injuries like a grotesque fire hydrant, one jet squirting from his neck, one gushing from his wrist, where every tendon and blood vessel had been cut.
Kemar continued walking, in a state of shock, in the direction of home. He made it across SW 25th Avenue before collapsing on the curb.
A bewildered crowd of bystanders, motorists, and area residents converged on the bloody scene. One driver who watched the accident unfold did a U-turn and tried to help. Josette Nash, a trauma nurse, called 911 as she tried desperately to stop Kemar's bleeding.
Within minutes, a man from the neighborhood came over and looked at Kemar lying in the street, covered in blood. He said Kemar was a kid from the neighborhood.
"You know him?" replied Nash's husband, Aaron. "Well, go get his family. He's dead." Kerron and the neighbor set out for home.
Two blocks away in the small bungalow she shared with her husband and six children, Sheila Fraser was preparing to leave for work. Still in the shower, she heard a door slam and her living room fill with shouting. "Mommy!" Kerron screamed. "I think something happened to Kemar!"
Fraser scrambled to throw on clothes and race up the street.
"I got there, and I could see it was Kemar," she says, remembering his body half-covered with a yellow emergency blanket, his eyes still open. "He was all turned around in the road." She could see he had been heading east toward SW 22nd Avenue, where they lived.
"Kemar was trying to reach home to me, and he fall," Sheila remembers. She dissolves into tears and buries her face in her hands.
"My baby!" she moans. "Oh my God!"
Kemar's bizarre, horrible death took an enormous toll on his family and friends, with Shanghai Garden emerging as a battleground where grief and anger coalesced. In the days that followed, the restaurant became a place of pilgrimage for those who loved and mourned the popular Stranahan High senior as well as a focus for their fury and revenge. The aftermath of the accident also dealt a devastating blow to the hard-working family that owned Shanghai Garden, battered by the violence and then angry retribution that played out in front of their restaurant. The lives of these two immigrant families collided in a horrific tragedy, with lasting repercussions of pain and regret that threaten to tear them both apart.
The residual pain still emanates from Sheila Fraser like heat from a sidewalk. On April 18, not quite five months after the accident, Kemar's mother threw him a birthday party like she does every year, with Black Forest cake (his favorite) and plenty of pizza and soda. Only this year, to mark his 18th birthday, she held the celebration at the cemetery where he is interred.
Kemar's younger brothers came along only because, Sheila confesses, she forced them to. Her 22-year-old son, Ricky, couldn't bear to be there at all. Kemar isn't supposed to be dead, Ricky told her. He's supposed to graduate from Stranahan High School and go on to college.
Listen to Sheila Fraser tell the story of Kemar's life and you begin to understand the deep, primal connection between mother and son.
Kemar was born in Westmoreland, Jamaica, in 1986. Sheila was 28 and married but relied on her mom to help her with childcare. In addition to Ricky, she had a daughter, Kim, who was a year older, and another son, Mickey, now 27. But when she and her husband migrated to South Florida in 1989, only Kemar, just 4 at the time, went with her. The other kids stayed with her family until she could afford to bring them over.
The first apartment the three rented in Fort Lauderdale was a grungy one-bedroom where they lived a minimalist lifestyle.
The family owned -- quite literally -- nothing.
"No bed," remembers Sheila, a heavy-set, cuddly woman with short, straight hair and a matriarch's weariness. "We sleep on the floor. So I make Kemar sleep on my tummy, and I use my clothes to cover him. And when anybody would come to the house, we would go outside to talk to them. We didn't want anyone to know that we didn't have any furniture. In the morning, we'd get up early and take the bus. We didn't want anyone to know we didn't have a car."
But Sheila worked, caring for geriatric patients in a nursing home, scrimping until she could finally afford a $60 bed from Salvation Army. She and Kemar didn't have to sleep on the floor anymore.
Kemar's father, Rupert Campbell, didn't last long in America.
"Sometimes the phone would ring," she explains, "and it would be a wrong number and they'd hang up. And he'd want to beat me up because he thought it was someone calling for me."
The pair divorced, and Sheila and Kemar moved into an even smaller apartment in Pompano Beach. Unable to afford childcare, she took the toddler to work with her. In the years that followed, she brought the rest of the family to the United States one by one. She married a Jamaican ex-pat, Erroll Fraser, and bought a modest home in a humble Fort Lauderdale neighborhood just west of I-95.
A few blocks away, at Riverland Elementary, Kemar would begin learning the skills that made him such a popular fixture at school. He didn't go to class to learn anything except how to have a good time. To him, his classmates were a captive audience upon whom he could aim his constant torrent of jokes, japes, one-liners, good-natured taunts, celebrity imitations, and outlandishly silly boasts.
He never missed school, his mom says, for fear he'd lose out on a lunchtime laugh-fest or the chance to bet on a basketball game after class. New River Middle School followed, then four years at Stranahan, where Kemar's social life grew to such proportions that it compelled him to make it to class no matter what. He wouldn't ditch, even if he was sick.
"He'd go to school, then come home and let me take him to the doctor," Sheila says.
Nowadays, Sheila visits with Kemar nearly five days a week at Forest Lawn Cemetery, where she often brings food and drink to share with the grounds crew. One weekday after his posthumous birthday party, Sheila stopped by her son's grave to eat her lunch on her way home from work.
A warm but not humid afternoon drains away as Sheila stretches out on the grass. She bought the plot next to his, so there's plenty of room for her to slide off her shoes after standing all day. She rubs her swollen feet and crimson-painted toes as tears spill from her reddened eyes and run in rivulets down her cheeks.
"I'm still shedding eye-water for him," she says, holding herself back from more. She has been working as many hours as possible to escape the past few months of pain. Once, she tried to arrange back-to-back 12-hour shifts so she could forestall going home. Her boss wouldn't let her.
"I don't want to be around the house," she says, wiping a tear. "When I come home, that's when things get rough. If I work, I forget."
Often, after she rests her head on his flat headstone and strokes it softly with her hand, Sheila falls asleep on the lawn six feet above his casket. The rumble of the grave-digging backhoe is her alarm clock.
"I hardly sleep at night," she says. "I get up and patrol the house. I want to come over here and see if he's OK. I wouldn't mind if they gave me work here," she sighs, tugging at the grass covering her son's tomb. "I'd sit right here every day."
The cemetery is only a mile from Riverland Elementary and Shanghai Garden. The white cinderblock building surrounded by a low hedge was old but not grungy. Serving mostly a working-class clientele, Shanghai Garden specialized in typically pedestrian fried rice/egg roll/sesame chicken fare with the occasional lobster or shrimp special written on a chalkboard.
For owner Bill Cheung, the journey to America was not dissimilar to Sheila Fraser's, though Cheung's parents had already moved to New York and become American citizens by the time he left his native Hong Kong to join them in 1978. His father was a waiter at a restaurant in suburban New Jersey, and Bill, who came to America at 22, followed in his footsteps.
Cheung married his wife, Annie, and relocated to Puerto Rico, where he opened a Cantonese restaurant on the outskirts of San Juan. They had four children there but decided to move to South Florida in the early 1990s.
"Education for my kids is so much better here," explains Bill Cheung, a short, serious man with dark black hair showing a pronounced gray streak.
After trying out North Miami Beach, the family moved to west Broward and opened Shanghai Garden in 1994, the first Chinese restaurant on Davie Boulevard, long-time employee Keno Wang says. Between local families eating dinner in the small dining room, employees from nearby businesses ordering lunch, and bustling takeout and delivery traffic, the Cheungs did well enough that three years ago, they opened the second Shanghai Garden, in Plantation.
But the Cheungs' road to business stability, following the classic immigrant route of incremental advances outbalancing minor setbacks, was knocked off track by the accident. It also dealt a devastating psychological blow that even family members struggle to explain.
Says the family's attorney, Lewis N. Jack Jr.: "They did not feel responsible. However, they are not unmindful of how catastrophic the loss was."
Cheung's 15-year-old daughter, Lailing, who was standing near the window when it broke and sustained a minor injury herself, appears to be at least one of the symptom bearers.
Lailing has never acknowledged that she knew Kemar, though he was a frequent visitor to Shanghai Garden. Kemar called in orders and went to pick up dinner there regularly. "That was Kemar's favorite restaurant," Sheila Fraser says. "If we ordered food, he would always want takeout Chinese. He loved the fried rice. Jumbo chicken fried rice."
But Lailing Cheung told police she didn't recognize the boys involved. After the glass broke, she said, she turned around and saw "one boy running and, like, one boy with a surprised look on his face."
To a reporter asking questions inside the small strip-mall Shanghai Garden in the Plantation Towne Square, Lailing flashes a cold, expressionless stare. The South Plantation High School student has just one word to say about the accident.
"No," she says.
Is she feeling effects from the shock and trauma of seeing Kemar die?
"What, like now?" she seethes, as if the question is impossibly lame. Bill Cheung shrugs and looks at his daughter.
"Your choice," he says to her. "Your choice."
"Why don't you come back later?" Lailing spits. The petite, bespectacled teen turns around so quickly that her long, black hair trails out behind her. She disappears into the kitchen, where an angry volley of loud Chinese erupts.
Bill Cheung says, "Let me ask her, OK?" and goes back to quell the upheaval. Arguing continues. His voice is calm, the others' sharp and shrill.
Finally, Bill Cheung emerges. Lailing, he says, will not talk.
"She was very scared, and she got hurt," he says. In fact, he adds, she didn't even want to return to the hospital to have her stitches removed. "She's just a young kid. Think about it. My other daughter says Lailing is still scared, [that] she does not want to be reminded. And so, I'm sorry, I can't help you."
Yet, he acknowledges, there's little doubt Lailing was profoundly affected by the events of November 30.
"Especially in the nighttime, she has bad dreams," Cheung continues. "Talking. She dreams and talks. Sometimes in the middle of the night, she shouts, 'Stop! Stop! Yaaaaaaah!'" He frantically waves his arms in front of his face.
"Dreaming," he says again, somberly. "With talk."
So much blood and chaos permeated the accident scene that no one was certain what had happened.
The initial 911 calls reported a shooting. Police officers arriving at the scene were looking for an assailant -- a black male, they'd been told, wearing a red shirt.
That was Kevon, who was momentarily apprehended by the first officers on the scene as a "possible suspect."
After she saw Kemar crumble to the ground, Josette Nash stopped to do what she could, but even with her medical training she was helpless.
"It was terrible!" she says now, her melodious West Indian voice clouding over with dread. "As I'm talking, I'm seeing everything over again." The 911 emergency transcripts show that she stayed on the phone as Kemar's life bled away at her feet. The operator asked if she could find clean, dry clothes or towels to stop the bleeding. "None of that," Nash said, frustrated. "None, none. Oh God!"
Then she said, "It looks like he stopped breathing, finally."
Shanghai Garden staff also called 911. Large portions of the conversation are inaudible, punctuated by shouts and screams, some of it in Chinese.
"OK, there's a lot of blood. I guess somebody came by and shot...," explains an unidentified employee. "One of them is on the floor."
Closest to the window, at the cash register, was Lailing Cheung. Her older sister, who didn't witness the accident, had called police. Lailing told detectives that her back was toward the window at the time it broke. She said she didn't know the boys.
"They didn't go to my school," she noted. But she said that previously while at work, passersby had made "harassing statements," and she conceded, "It could have been them."
Bill Cheung was at the other Shanghai Garden when the accident happened. He rushed to the hospital to find Lailing in the emergency room. She'd been struck by a piece of falling glass as she was taking a customer's order over the phone. The injury was minor, and she received two stitches in her back.
Months later at the Plantation restaurant, he produces a hospital bill from the pocket of his slacks, which are held high around his waist with a black leather belt.
"The E.R. was $1,500!' Cheung says angrily. "One thousand, five hundred! I'm out a lot of money!"
When Sheila Fraser saw her son's body, raw panic and anguish engulfed her. But the Fort Lauderdale Police officers standing around were anything but sympathetic, she says.
"One of them told me that something happened to my other sons at the restaurant," she claims. She entered Shanghai Garden, looking for Kevon and Kerron. "And none of them was in the restaurant," she says, throwing up her hands. "They locked me up in there, and they tell me I couldn't see my son because the detectives were working."
After standing around Kemar's body in stupefied silence, police officers decided there had been no shooting. Instead, following the commotion, a different theory evolved -- one that involved the basketball being hurled against the window. Kevon, Kerron, and Josette Nash all disputed this account.
"I saw him hit the glass -- once -- with his hand," Nash says.
Neither Kevon nor Kerron wants to talk about his brother anymore, nor discuss that afternoon. But Helen Kennedy, community liaison for Stranahan High, did speak with Kevon the night after the accident. "He said to me that Kemar was tired and leaned up against the glass," she says.
David Brill, the Pembroke Pines attorney who represented the Frasers on Kemar's behalf, offers another possibility.
"She's kinda cute," he says of Lailing Cheung. "It could be that a ladies man like Kemar would try to get her attention and look at her pretty face or whatever."
Still, police combed through the broken glass inside the restaurant, looking for a shard with the imprint of a basketball on it.
What they should have noticed instead was that the large plate-glass window wasn't modern, tempered, safety glass but just a plain old windowpane -- ancient, in fact. Engineers who examined it estimated it had been there for at least two decades, rattling around in its frame, struck by rocks kicked up by cars, pocked with BB holes. Some of the holes had even been painted over with the restaurant's name and phone number.
Eventually, Brill was able to demonstrate that the window of the restaurant had a preexisting crack and other problems affecting its structural integrity -- something Sheila still contends the Cheungs should have known and remedied.
"You know, it's a big window," Cheung admits. "It's not that strong."
The day after the accident, Sheila Fraser publicly blamed Shanghai Garden for his gruesome death.
"Restaurant Chinaman lied!" she sobbed to a TV news crew that had come to her home.
"If it was real glass, it wouldn't have broken and killed my son!" she insists now. "And when my son get cut, they didn't help him. If they had, maybe he wouldn't have died. They let him bleed to death."
Authorities do not hold the Cheung family directly responsible for Kemar's death. True, the Cheungs, fearful that a gunman was outside the restaurant, remained inside following the accident. But it is unlikely that, even if they had been willing to risk their lives to try to save Kemar, they could have done much.
"Barring standing in an operating room when this happened, these were fatal, lethal injuries," explains Dr. Linda O'Neil, the Broward County medical examiner who performed Kemar's autopsy. "If you transect those vessels, you're going to hemorrhage to death."
Sheila can't take much comfort from this. "I know if I was there, maybe he wouldn't die," she says through tears. "If I could stop the blood. Maybe put some ice on his cuts."
When classes resumed on Monday, December 1, word quickly circulated around Stranahan High School that Kemar Campbell had died.
"Normally, when there's a tragedy like this," Helen Kennedy says, "the school sends in psychologists and that type of thing. I said, 'Leave the kids alone. They'll figure it out.' They cried for 45 minutes, grabbed a mike, and formed a big circle -- I'm talking maybe 300 kids."
Kennedy visited Sheila Fraser to offer support on behalf of Stranahan. She also contacted a Jamaican-born pastor and a mortuary willing to offer services at a discount.
"I didn't know anything about funerals -- how to start, what to do," Fraser confesses at Kemar's grave. "I didn't even know how to get the body from the medical examiner." Kennedy, she explains, "is a godsend."
As Kennedy drove to the Fraser home, she noticed a stream of Stranahan students walking to Shanghai Garden, milling about in front, using markers to write eulogies to their friend on the restaurant's white exterior.
"They were certainly gathering," she says, adding that she asked them to return to school.
Later that afternoon, a larger crowd of students and friends from the neighborhood congregated at the restaurant. The sidewalk and street was still stained dark brown with Kemar's blood.
The memorial grew, covering one side of the restaurant, with messages reading, "I'll always love and miss you," "Dolphins 4-Life," and "Heaven gained a precious angel." After the sun set, the façade was illuminated with the blinding lights of a TV camera crew.
Later, the gathering turned violent.
After witnesses observed a group of as many as 50 kids throwing rocks at Shanghai Gardens late that night, police arrived but made no arrests. They helped Cheung board up more broken windows.
"The bitterness that the kids voiced was that the restaurant remained open," Kennedy opines. "But I explained these are people making a living. Only a few [kids] did the vandalizing, and they were ones I just couldn't reach.
"I asked the kids, 'What would Kemar ask you to do?' It sure wouldn't be to be angry or destroy property."
By the next night, the restaurant's remaining glass windows, front door, and sign had been smashed. A huge chunk of concrete was found by police in the kitchen.
Who did the damage? "Somebody," Cheung says enigmatically. "Maybe the boy's family or his friends from school, they broke the windows. Two more times. I have to pay for someone to fix that -- insurance did not pay for glass."
Kemar's funeral later that week all but emptied out Stranahan's senior class. An estimated 800 attendees meant some had to sit outside the church.
"All those girls at school," Sheila sighs. "The girls even kiss him in his casket."
Erroll Fraser, Kemar's stepfather, breaks into a guilty smile and says softly, "He didn't have a girlfriend, but every girl in school was his friend, you know what I mean?"
Employees and friends from the nearby Boys and Girls Club where Kemar had been a cheerful fixture for years came out in flocks.
On a break from monitoring younger teens at the club, 17-year-old Alex Francois visits Kemar's grave just before the cemetery closes. The two had been best friends since they too used to play basketball at Riverland Elementary together.
"I just came out to wish Kemar a happy birthday," he says above the buzz of a weed whacker. He's wearing a white T-shirt with Kemar's picture printed on it, above his nickname, Top Flight.
In Ice Cube's movie Friday After Next, unarmed Top Flight Security guards must rely upon the only means of enforcement they have -- whistles. Kemar thought it was the funniest thing in the world to walk around Stranahan's hallways, blowing that whistle on fictional perpetrators.
Francois cups that same whistle softly in his hand as he says a prayer over his friend's grave.
He dials his cell phone, calls the Fraser home, and speaks to Kemar's older brother, Ricky.
All week, Francois has been close to tears himself, keeping a Xerox photo of Kemar on the dashboard of his Honda, listening to Rest in Peace songs. The last time he hung out with Kemar was during that Thanksgiving break, sitting on a friend's front porch. Kemar was laughing his head off about something.
"You know how, when somebody dies, everybody's always like, 'He was a great person,' you know?" Francois begins. "Kemar was the one person you could honestly say that about. I know that's kind of a cliché. He was just the kind of person you always want to be around."
Francois worries about Kemar's younger brothers, who have drifted into depressive states.
"They're holding it back, and when I see them, I'm holding it back with 'em," he says. At Kemar's funeral, it was a different story.
"I tried to be strong," he says. "But I feel like I lost a brother."
Kennedy still remembers the Friday before Thanksgiving vacation, when Kemar poked his head in her office and asked when she would begin teaching her introductory driver's ed class. He couldn't wait to drive.
"I'll do one in the neighborhood, yo," she said, affecting the silly faux-street lingo that kept Kemar in stitches. "Just get wit' me over the holidays."
That was the last time they spoke.
Almost six months after Kemar's death, the two families are struggling back to normality.
On February 8, a car heading west on Davie Boulevard crashed into Shanghai Garden. The car plowed through roof supports and knocked the front door into the lobby. Neither the driver, a 32-year-old Fort Lauderdale woman named Marie Amelia Julme, nor her three children, aged 11, 13, and 14, were seriously injured.
Julme told police her kids, fighting in the car, had distracted her. "The next thing she knew, she had hit the building," the crash report states. Fort Lauderdale police ticketed her for failure to use due care and driving with a learner's permit. Cheung says police told him the car was traveling as fast as 75 mph.
Had the Cheungs been behind the counter, the outcome could have been deadly: The area where the cash register and phone sat was demolished. Luckily, it was only 10:30 on a Sunday morning, and Shanghai Garden didn't open until 1 p.m.
"It was her brother's car, and she didn't have insurance," Cheung explains. "I can't believe it. If she had insurance, we could have gotten money that way."
After wrangling with his own insurance company and his landlords, renovations and repairs have begun, and Cheung hopes to have the restaurant back in business sometime in July.
"We'll see," he says. "I hope they finish soon so I can reopen. I've lost a lot of money and a lot of business." But he knows he has a steep climb, as many of his loyal customers have undoubtedly moved on.
Bill Cheung understands Sheila's hostility. "Yeah," he says. "Because she lose her son, you know." However, he isn't exactly apologizing for what happened.
"It was an accident," he says. "Even the police say the boy hit the window. Somebody said he was trying to scare my daughter, and somebody said he was bouncing a basketball.
"We didn't do nothing!" he mutters. "Everybody knows it's not my fault. We are very honest people. I never did anything wrong to the customers."
Regardless of what actually transpired, the two insurance companies representing Shanghai Garden and the owner of the building settled with Sheila Fraser for $300,000 each, which again offers little solace to her.
At the Fraser household, Kemar is still a haunting presence.
Kemar's brothers, like Lailing, don't sleep well. Sheila thinks it's because they have not sought the solace of the cemetery. "They won't go. They said it was hard enough to lose him."
The brothers tell Sheila, "I can't see him like that." When she tries to speak to them about Kemar, "they just walk away," she says. "They're not ready to talk."
The jokes Kemar dispensed with ease are in short supply today. Kevon, who watched his brother die in front of him, taking off his own shirt in an attempt to stop the blood, is still struggling painfully to come to emotional terms with what happened. Only recently has he shown any interest in sports or his beloved PlayStation 2.
"I've got my eye on Kevon here," Kennedy says. "I called him into the office yesterday. He hasn't really talked -- to anyone. Counselors have tried to get him to open up, and he's like, 'I'm OK. '"
For Sheila, grief for her son is boundless. She relives, over and over, Kemar's final day.
She hadn't yet washed his gray Bob Marley T-shirt when he died, nor would she again. It was the only shirt of his that still carried his scent rather than detergent. Every day, just for a few minutes, Sheila puts it on to soak up as much as she can.
That day was a workday for Sheila, with a shift starting at 5 p.m. that didn't end until early Monday. But Sunday morning, she and Kemar drove to a fish market on Broward Boulevard to go shopping. Fish -- any kind of fish -- was another of Kemar's favorite foods.
Kemar spent the morning "laying on his back on the floor in front of the TV, as usual," Sheila says. If he wasn't playing basketball, he was watching it. No one else dared touch the set when Kemar was immersed in a close game, she says. "His foot was up on the TV set, as usual. He sucked on his finger, so he had his finger in his mouth," she chuckles. "As usual."
But he jumped at the chance to fix lunch. So he fired up the charcoal grill in the backyard -- no one liked the smell the fried fish left in the little house -- and set a pot of oil on the grate. After he'd cooked a batch, he and his mom sat under a tree in the yard and ate their last lunch together.
"He said, 'Mommy, you want me to help you or do anything else?'" Sheila remembers. He wanted to go shoot hoops at Riverland Elementary but told her he'd be back before she left for work at 5 o'clock.
After the accident, Kevon told Sheila that Kemar might have been trying to say something as he lay in the street. He wasn't sure.
"Why didn't you put your ear down to his mouth to try to hear?" Sheila asked him.
Kevon said he didn't know he could do that.
"Maybe," Sheila says, "he was trying to say, 'Call Mommy. '"
After a few hours at the cemetery, Sheila dusts off her colorful scrubs, slides her loafers back on, and starts to walk back to her car. Suddenly she turns around, walks back to Kemar's grave, and places a red-and-white box of crispy KFC wings atop the headstone.
"I'm gonna leave, baby -- I'll see you tomorrow, OK?" she murmurs.
"Can I leave this here for Kemar?" she asks a passing groundskeeper. "He always loved these."
He smiles, shrugs his big shoulders, and says, "Of course you can, Mrs. Fraser. You do whatever you want. He's your baby."
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