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Tragedy in the Backseat: Hot-Car Deaths


Each year about 37 babies and toddlers die when they are accidentally left strapped in car safety seats or become trapped in vehicles that rapidly heat up.

If you think this senseless tragedy couldn't happen to you, think again.

Mary Parks and her husband, Jeff, had everything they wanted: a comfortable house in Blacksburg, VA; well-paying jobs (Parks was an accountant, Jeff a research scientist); and two darling boys adopted as babies from Guatemala. The end of August and start of September 2007 had been stressful, though. Twenty-three-month-old Juan and his 4-year-old brother, Byron, had both been sick on and off. Parks's days had been blurs of work, daycare, doctors, business trips, visits with relatives, and anxiety. On September 7, after attending to a feverish Byron the night before, she left him home to recuperate with Jeff. Her plan was to drive Juan to daycare on her way to work.

Rarely had Parks taken just one boy to daycare. Rarely had she gone to work at all if one boy was sick -- but this time she and Jeff agreed to swap roles. Moments after she started driving, Parks says, she realized Juan had fallen asleep. It was the last time that morning that she would remember he was in the car. "We were no longer taking anything of his to daycare -- we were beyond diaper bags," she says. So there was no baby gear in the front seat to remind her. She caught no glimpse of him in the rearview mirror, either; in his car seat, Juan was too short to spot easily. Most important, perhaps, Byron wasn't there, chattering away. "He never fell asleep in the car," Parks explains.

Instead of stopping at the daycare center, she drove right to work. Parks grabbed her purse from the front seat, went into her office, and had "a normal day." Talked with her supervisor. Ate lunch at her desk. Called Jeff to see how Byron was doing. She even remembers telling colleagues that -- since Juan had been sick, too -- she might have to leave early if a call came from daycare to get him. In her mind, that's exactly where he was.

After work, Parks drove to the supermarket, shopped for dinner, and continued on to the daycare center to pick Juan up -- unaware that he was already sitting right behind her. When she arrived, his teacher asked, "Was Juan out sick today?"

"No," said Parks. "I brought him this morning."

"He wasn't here today," the teacher said.

Within moments, Parks recalls, "a light in my head went on. I took off running toward the car. My heart was already in my feet because I knew how hot it had been that day. I got to the car, jerked open the door, and saw him. I reached over to him. I remember screaming at him, 'Juan! Juan! You've got to wake up!'?" Cradling her son's body -- stiff and still as a baby doll's -- Parks ran inside the daycare office. One staffer tried desperately to revive Juan with CPR; another called 911. "I went in crying for help," Parks says, "but I knew he was dead."