Days after an 11-month-old infant died after being left in a hot car for hours on Tunnel Boulevard, Hamilton County law enforcement officials were sounding the alarm on hot car deaths.
While the infant's death was the first child vehicular heatstroke death since 2012 in Tennessee, said Janette Fennell, founder and president of KidsAndCars.org, the state still ranks eighth in the nation for vehicular heat stroke in children under 14 years of age.
On average, a child dies every 10 days in the U.S. from being left in a hot car, according to data provided by Erlanger hospital. Last year, there were 39 child deaths; this year there have been 19 to date.
While slightly more than half of vehicular heatstroke deaths in children are results of parents or caregivers forgetting a child in a car, 28 percent are due to the child playing in an unattended vehicle. Seventeen percent are from an adult intentionally leaving the child in the car, according to kidsand cars.org, a nonprofit organization focusing on child safety in and around cars.
On Monday, the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office kicked off its "Look Before You Lock" initiative, which seeks to prevent unnecessary hot car deaths of children and pets. The campaign, launched last year, was already scheduled to begin later this month, but with Saturday's tragedy still fresh on people's minds, sheriff's spokesman Matt Lea said organizers decided to go ahead and start it now.
The hope is to remind parents to check their back seats before they lock their cars and to discuss the dangers of playing in cars with toddler-aged children.
Deaths this year
There have been 19 child vehicular heatstroke deaths this year:
* Feb. 6: 1-year-old, Florida
* Feb. 28: 2-year-old, Florida
* March 28: 3-year-old, Louisiana
* April 5: 19-month-old, West Virginia
* April 7: 1-year-old, Alabama
* April 14: 23-month-old, Texas
* May 20: 5-month-old, Idaho
* May 26: 2-year-old, Texas
* May 26: 1-year-old, Texas
* June 7: 1-year-old, Texas
* June 7: 2-year-old, Texas
* June 12: 6-year-old, Arkansas
* June 23: 7-month-old, Texas
* June 23: 3-year-old, Texas
* June 23: 10-month-old, Idaho
* June 24: 2-year-old, Utah
* July 1: 3-year-old, North Carolina
* July 2: 7-week-old, Florida
* July 8: 11-month-old, Chattanooga
In just 10 minutes, a car's internal temperature can go up by 20 degrees, according to a data from the sheriff's office. Even with an outside temperature of 60 degrees, a car can reach 110 degrees on a sunny day.
Temperatures on Saturday peaked at 89 degrees by 4 p.m., about two hours before authorities were called to the scene where the baby died.
Children are at greater risk for hyperthermia — severe overheating of the body — because their bodies heat up three to five times faster than an adult because their internal systems are not developed enough to either absorb or generate heat under stress, according to Erlanger. Children are also too young to problem-solve and understand the importance of finding safety when they get too hot.
At the Children's Hospital at Erlanger on Friday, one day before the baby died, doctors weighed in on preventative measures and symptoms of hyperthermia during a Safe and Sound event to raise awareness of hot car deaths.
They said when a child's body temperature reaches 104 degrees, internal organs begin to shut down; and at 107 degrees, temperatures become fatal.
Symptoms of hyperthermia can quickly progress from dizziness and disorientation to hallucinations, vomiting, seizures, loss of consciousness, organ failure and ultimately death.
On Monday, the sheriff's office had a patrol car on display to show the difference in outside temperature versus the temperature inside the car. By 3 p.m., the vehicle was so hot a thermometer inside the car could not register the temperature because it exceeded 130 degrees. Lea said the temperature was between 140 and 150 degrees.
The patrol car will be on display again today and Thursday at the Walmart on Highway 153 in Hixson as part of the Look Before You Lock campaign.
"The idea is to get people to see the temperatures and visualize how hot it is and help them remember to check on their children," Lea said.
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said his office gets a fair number of calls from people reporting children or animals left in cars. However, in the last year and a half, there haven't been any significant incidents in which a child or an animal died or almost died in such a way, Lea said.
A 2014 Tennessee law grants immunity to people who break into cars with the intention of removing a child or animal. That is, as long as all other methods of entry have been exhausted and there is a good faith belief the child or animal is in imminent danger.
Hammond said parents who are reported by concerned citizens could face charges, but they are always investigated to determine if they should be charged or not.
"Sometimes it can open up Pandora's box in terms of what's really going on with neglect," Hammond said, as was the case with the infant's death on Saturday.
"Once the investigator gets involved in it, they're obligated to pursue it wherever it goes," he said.
On Monday, family members gathered in the Buffalo Shack parking lot on Tunnel Boulevard where the infant died to raise money for her funeral. They held signs that read "Donations for our funeral."
McCullough, 30, was jailed on a $1 million bond Sunday, charged with criminal homicide and three counts of aggravated child neglect in the girl's death. Sheriff's office records show he also was charged with child abuse/neglect in 2012, and with drug- and weapons-related charges in 2007.
The girl's mother, 24-year-old Jessica Tollett, is charged with three counts of aggravated child abuse/neglect. Records don't show any prior arrests for her in Hamilton County.
By the numbers
* 54 percent: child “forgotten” by caregiver (376 Children)
* 28 percent: child playing in unattended vehicle (198)
* 17 percent: child intentionally left in vehicle by adult (120)
* 1 percent: circumstances unknown (6)
The charges came after investigators found the family's home in what they called "atrocious conditions" Sunday. One room was covered in feces and urine, there was only one bed and one crib and the refrigerator was "basically empty with no food for the children inside," a police report states.
The couple's two surviving children showed signs of neglect, malnutrition and possible abuse, investigators said. Chattanooga police spokeswoman Elisa Myzal said Sunday they would be taken into Child Protective Services custody once they've been medically cleared.
"We didn't ask for this," said one family member who identified herself only as an aunt.
"I couldn't believe it," said another man who said he was a cousin. "I got a call saying, 'Your little cousin is dead,' and I said, 'What are you talking about?'"
Another cousin said family members hope to raise $2,000 "to get her a nice casket" and said they were planning to have the funeral by the end of the week. He said about nine family members were there collecting donations, but the whole family would be there again today.
"[Travis McCullough] loved his kids," said one cousin. "He always had them with him."
He added that no one ever saw the couple abuse their three children, and the family is working with Child Protective Services to get custody of the surviving two children.
"We already lost one," he said. "We don't want to lose any more."
Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at email@example.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @Hughes Rosana.