Toddler dies after 5 hours in car
Aunt held on possible negligent homicide

Jack Gillum
The Arizona Republic
Jul. 13, 2005 12:00 AM

A 22-month-old girl died Tuesday after being left for hours inside a hot car outside a Phoenix apartment, prompting police to arrest her aunt on suspicion of negligent homicide.

Paramedics were first called about 12:20 p.m., about five hours after Sara Denise DeLaCruz was left alone, said Phoenix Assistant Fire Chief Bob Khan. The girl was taken to Maricopa Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead.

"It's a nightmare," said Khan, who added that the child had a core temperature of 107 degrees even after rescuers cooled her down. "You can't get past the sight of a baby sitting inside a (hot) car."

The death occurred on a day when temperatures were in the 90s most of the morning and hit 101 by 11 a.m.

Police said the tragedy began when the 26-year-old aunt, Blanca Estela Nuņez, drove the child's mother to work, said Detective Tony Morales, a spokesman for the Phoenix Police Department.

Nuņez dropped the mother off at a market near 16th and Roosevelt streets, then drove her own husband to work near 56th Street and Camelback Road, Morales said.

About 7 a.m., Nuņez returned to her home near 34th Street and McDowell Road but, police said, she had forgotten to drop the young girl at day care.

"She was the only adult in the car with the victim and was the only adult person responsible for the care of this child," Morales said in a statement. "For reasons that she could not explain, it appears that she simply forgot to take the child down from the car, and the child was not missed until shortly before we received the first frantic 911 call."

Police took Nuņez into custody Tuesday afternoon.

DeLaCruz is the only Valley child to die in a hot car so far this year.

Last summer, a 4-year-old Mesa girl and a 7-month-old Phoenix boy died after being left in cars in separate incidents. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office said charges against the Phoenix boy's mother, Vanesselt Raban, are still being reviewed. The Mesa girl's mother, however, was not charged.

Tuesday's death serves as a reminder of the dangers that can befall children inside and around cars.

DeLaCruz is one of at least 10 children across the country this year who died after being left in a car, according to Jan Null, an independent meteorologist in Fremont, Calif., who tracks reports of such heat-related deaths.

Randy Cerveny, a geography professor at Arizona State University, said cars can heat up to 135 degrees within 20 minutes or less.

"Kids shouldn't be left in these extreme kinds of situations," he said.

More than a dozen children in Arizona have died of hyperthermia in vehicles since 1988, reported advocacy group Kids and Cars.

Tuesday's temperatures rose to a record 115 degrees, breaking the previous high for the date of 114 degrees set in 1985.

When it gets even hotter inside a car, a child's body suffers from heatstroke and isn't able to stop body temperatures from rising, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Even mild temperatures can be perilous for trapped children. Null points to a May 13 incident in Jersey City, N.J., in which 70-degree weather was enough to overheat and kill a 4-month-old baby.

A report last May by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration identified 116 deaths and 39 injuries in children 9 and younger from 1998 to 2002, the latest year for which numbers are available.

However, a July 2002 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said such reports may undercount the true number of fatal cases nationally because data are limited or incomplete. Those statistics track injuries and deaths of children left unattended around motor vehicles but do not single out deaths by overheating.

Khan said that Phoenix fire authorities have responded to 353 calls this year alone of children being accidentally locked in a car.