BLACKSBURG, VA., NOV. 9 -- Deputy sheriffs responding to an emergency call to Linda and Danny Hurst's home entered with their guns drawn, searching for whoever had called dispatchers 10 times.

They'd have been better off armed with a salad fork.

An overripe tomato was hanging over the telephone in a wire basket about 1 p.m. Nov. 2 when it burst, dripping juice into the Hursts' telephone answering machine, said Chief Deputy Milton Graham.

The tomato juice apparently got into the telephone's dialing system, Graham said, and caused it to dial the sheriff's office. "We're not sure how. Maybe they had speed-dialing and it shorted out," he said.

The dispatcher received calls that were traced to the Hursts' home in the Jefferson National Forest. She called and the line was busy. When she hung up, she received another call. And another.

Deputies tracked down Linda Hurst at her mother's house. "I told them I'd locked my house and there shouldn't be anyone in there," she said.

Police, concerned that someone had broken in, arranged to have Hurst meet them at her home, where her brother finally discovered juice dripping from the tomato into the answering machine.

"I didn't know the answering machine could even dial out." Hurst said. "It's just supposed to take messages."