Children's bodies are not equipped to deal with high heat, especially if they are in an enclosed space. Elevated body temperatures can cause parts of the brain to shut down, triggering a "cascading effect." Once a child is unconcious, the unregulated systems in their body begin to shut down. The hotter the temperature is outside, the more children are at risk for hyperthermia - though it does not have to be extremely hot for children to be at risk in confined spaces.
Source: Bradley County Medical Examiner Dr. Jeffrey Miller
A three-year-old boy who died of severe heat stroke in June suffered core body temperatures of at least 109 degrees before his death, according to final autopsy results released Wednesday.
Officials believe the core temperature for his 5-year-old brother - who died in the same incident - could have been just as high.
"He was extremely hot to touch when he came through the door," said Bradley County Medical Examiner Jeffrey Miller, who was at the hospital when 3-year-old River Bates was brought to the emergency room on June 28.
Five-year-old Leland Bates' temperature, taken after he was airlifted to a Chattanooga hospital, was 103 degrees.
But that was after paramedics and doctors had pumped him with fluids and packed his little body with ice, so it's likely his temperature was much higher at the time the unconscious boys were discovered by their mother, Miller said.
Both boys were hydrated and otherwise in good health, said Miller, who said Wednesday that the boys had the worst case of hyperthermia he had ever encountered. Toxicology tests conducted by the state came up empty.
"These were normal, healthy children and there was nothing wrong with them except they came in unresponsive, and died shortly after," he said.
That was a key factor in Miller's decision to list the boys' "manner of death" as homicide, he said.
"If you feel there was a reason that this death was caused by someone else in whatever capacity, [Tennessee law] gives you the ability to call it a homicide," Miller said.
The boys' mother, 26-year-old Tasha Bates, has been charged with felony murder, aggravated child abuse and endangerment as well as methamphetamine-related offenses in connection with the case.
Her next court date is Nov. 19.
Tasha Bates has maintained that she had left the boys outside unattended for 45 minutes on a Slip'n Slide water toy and later found both lying on the ground, unmoving.
But the boys' core body temperatures led investigators to believe they were trapped in a confined space on that 101-degree day, though they have not said where.
Most children who die from hyperthermia are trapped in cars.
Miller said the autopsy findings could not reveal where or how long the boys were exposed to extreme heat conditions.