Death of boy found in family car ruled accidental

Thursday, June 26, 2003

The 4-year-old boy who died in a hot car Wednesday had climbed inside the vehicle while his mother napped in the house, investigators said Thursday.

Allen Basinger died of heatstroke after he was found inside the family's medium-blue Subaru Legacy station wagon parked in an unshaded driveway, authorities said. A criminal investigation continued, but no charges had been filed.

Roger Wade, spokesman for the Travis County sheriff's office, said Allen's mother, Letha Basinger, found the boy passed out in his car seat in the car outside the family home at 7805 Imogene Drive in far eastern Travis County.

Wade said the tragedy began when Letha Basinger put Allen and his 1 1/2-year-old sibling down for a nap, then fell asleep herself.

"When she got up, she became concerned after not seeing (Allen) for awhile, and then she found him in the car," Wade said.

When Basinger called 911, Wade said, "the child was hot and not responding." The mother administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation until paramedics arrived six minutes later, he said.

Paramedics worked on Allen for nearly an hour before he was declared dead at 7:40 p.m. The Travis County medical examiner ruled the death an accident.

"All the emergency workers were just as distraught as the family," Wade said. "It was a terrible scene."

A woman who answered the phone at the Basinger home declined to comment.

Wade said investigators don't know how long Allen was in the car.

Temperatures in Austin that afternoon reached 98 degrees. It was 94 at the time Basinger called 911.

Geoff Wool, director of public information for the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services, said the Child Protective Services division had not yet begun its investigation into the death.

"We understand at this point that it's a criminal investigation, so we're letting the sheriff's department do what it needs to do before we step in," he said.

Wool said Allen's sibling had not been taken into custody, pending the results of the investigation of the family.

The death came a little more than a week after a 2-year-old girl, left for hours in an SUV outside a day care center in South Austin, died of heatstroke.

The back-to-back cases underscore the danger of leaving children in vehicles, even for a short time.

"It starts getting dangerous, I would say, immediately," said Capt. Jim Eberle of the Austin Fire Department. "You just introduced the child into a hot environment. You closed the doors and put them in the oven. So it demands an immediate response."

Heatstroke, technically called hyperthermia, is a condition where the body temperature reaches a dangerously high level more than 103 degrees, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It doesn't take long for closed cars to become lethally hot. A June 2003 study by a meteorologist and adjunct professor at San Francisco State University found that after 10 minutes on a 96-degree day, the interior temperature of a closed dark blue sedan rose to 113 degrees. After an hour, the inside of the car reached 140 degrees.

On an 88-degree day, the study found, temperatures within a closed car can reach fatal levels in less than 10 minutes.

Eberle said the fire department averages three calls a day from people who accidentally lock children or animals in their cars.

"Two out of the three (lockout) calls we get a day are for children locked in vehicles," Eberle said. The vast majority of those calls, he said, are made by parents or caretakers who immediately realized their mistake.

"Normally it's not the cases we're hearing in the media where the child's been forgotten," he said. "That's a totally different scenario, and fortunately we're not seeing that very much."

In most cases where children die in hot cars, the parents simply forgot they were there, said Tammy Russell, co-founder of 4 R Kids Sake, a California-based nonprofit organization that tracks such incidents. Often the children are in a safety seat in the back.

"What I would recommend doing is putting the infant diaper bag in front with you, or putting your purse or briefcase in the back seat with the child," Russell said. "That way, it forces you to remember there is a child present."

In the case last week, 2-year-old Chloe Abbott died of heatstroke June 19 after being left in a car seat in a black SUV parked outside a La Petite Academy for more than three hours. Chloe's mother, Nikki Abbott, who at the time was director of the south Austin day care center, has not been charged.

Julie Regier was the communications medic who happened to take the calls from both Nikki Abbott and Letha Basinger.

"You could hear them they were frantic when they called," Regier said Thursday. "But once they were able to regroup they were able to follow instructions."

Wade warned against laying blame.

"All the evidence points to a terrible, terrible accident," he said. "In this case, so far, there's just no one person or one thing you can blame. It's just accidental, and that makes it just tougher on the family they can't blame anybody."