TAMPA — The day started with a routine shuttling of family members.
Two parents loaded their kids into a Jeep on Monday morning, Tampa police say. The father dropped the wife at work and the kids at school, then returned to their home on North 19th Street, parked the Jeep and drove a work truck to his own job.
Hours later, about 6:30 p.m., family members realized the fatal mistake: One of the children, an 18-month-old girl, had been left in the Jeep.
“My baby sister! My baby sister!” one of the girl’s siblings, 11 years and sounding frantic, screamed at a 911 dispatcher. “I don’t know if she’s breathing! I think she’s dead!"
Tampa police officers responded first and started live-saving measures until Tampa Fire Rescue arrived. Staff at a local hospital pronounced the girl dead a short time later.
An official cause of death had not been released Tuesday but investigators believe the death is heat-related, police spokesman Steve Hegarty said.
Detectives don’t expect the death will result in criminal charges, Hegarty said.
“All indications are it was a tragic accident,” he said. “They were just trying to get people where they needed to go and forgot the child in the back."
Until that conclusion is official, police aren’t releasing the names of the girl or her parents, who have at least two other children, Hegarty said.
The Jeep was not among several cars parked in front of the family’s single-story home on Tuesday. A woman who answered the door declined to speak to a reporter.
Temperatures in Tampa climbed to about 90 degrees on Monday. With an outside air temperature of about 88 degrees, the temperature in the car could have surpassed 130 degrees, said Jan Null, an adjunct professor of meteorology at San Jose State University who studies pediatric vehicular heat stroke.
“For a small child, that’s certainly a fatal temperature,” Null said, noting that a person inside the car sitting in direct sunlight could get significantly hotter.
Temperatures don’t have to climb very far for children in cars to die of heat stroke, Null said. He pointed to a case in the San Francisco area about five years ago of a child who died in a vehicle when temperatures reached just 67 degrees.
If confirmed, Monday’s death in Tampa would be the 49th case of fatal pediatric vehicular heatstroke in the United States this year and the fifth case in Florida, according to a database Null created and updates at noheatstroke.org.
The national record, by Null’s count, is 53 deaths, set just last year. Just over nine months into the year, 2019 is on a pace to surpass that.
Between 1998 and 2018, at least 88 children died in Florida, placing the state second behind Texas, the database shows.
By Null’s count, 846 children have died of vehicular heatstroke since 1998. Null examined media reports for 795 of the deaths and found that nearly 54 percent of the children were forgotten by a caregiver.
Another 26 percent gained access to the vehicle on their own and about one in five were knowingly left in the vehicle by a caregiver.
The incidents can and do result in criminal charges, though another Tampa Bay case showed how the criminal justice system can reach different conclusions in different cases.
In September 2016, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office arrested a Palm Harbor father for leaving his 23-month-old son in a truck, but prosecutors dropped the aggravated manslaughter charge a few months later after deciding they could not show the father acted with “intentional disregard" in the child’s death.
Bruce Bartlett, the chief assistant state attorney for Pinellas and Pasco counties, noted another consideration in a comment to the Times at the time: “What he will live with for the rest of his life far exceeds anything that could be done to him with regards to punishment."
Tips for parents
The organization kidsandcars.org offers these tips for caregivers who travel with children:
Make a habit of opening the back door every time you park to ensure no one is left behind. To enforce this habit, place an item you can’t start your day without in the back seat ― employee badge, laptop, phone, handbag, etc.
Ask your child care provider to call you right away if your child hasn’t arrived as scheduled.
Clearly announce and confirm who is getting each child out of the vehicle. Miscommunication can lead to everyone thinking someone else removed the child.