A 3-year-old girl, left unattended in a locked, closed automobile, died Monday from heatstroke induced by temperatures inside the car that probably climbed to more than 130 degrees, Northern Virginia police said yesterday.
Arlington and Falls Church police classified the death of Katrina Patrice Harrigan of Hyattsville as suspicious, and said they had questioned the 24-year-old woman who had agreed to care for the child.
Although the woman, Kathy Elizabeth Daniel, told officers she had left the child alone for only 15 minutes in a Falls Church parking lot, a detective said he believed the girl had been in the car for nearly two hours before the woman returned.
Medical authorities said yesterday that 90-degree temperatures inside closed automobiles can reach 130 degrees within 15 minutes. For a small child, that can be fatal in 30 minutes, the authorities said.
"We receive [complaint] calls about animals in closed cars all the time," said Robert Tuthill investigations chief for the Falls Church Police Department. "I don't know why nobody called to report a child. The whole thing is incredible."
Investigators said Daniel, who shared an apartment with the child and her mother, had discovered the girl lying motionless on the rear seat of her car after she had been fired from her job as a food sales clerk.
When she could not arouse the child, Daniel reportedly told police that she drove to a Gino's restaurant on Lee Highway in North Arlington, a distance of about five miles.
There, police say, she bought several hamburgers and a cup of water, which she poured on the child's face, apparently hoping to revive her. When that failed, Daniel drove the half-mile to Arlington Hospital. Hospital records indicate she and Katrina arrived at the emergency room at 1:30 p.m.
A team of doctors, headed by Peter Collis, chief of the hospital emergency department, could not revive the child. She was pronounced dead 22 minutes later.
"I've never seen a case like this before," said Dr. Collis, echoing police detectives. "[Daniel] was very upset when she brought the little girl in. I'm sure no one would ever do it intentionally. I think the lady [Daniel] just forgot that the child was there.
"Of course the general rule in taking care of children is that you never, ever leave them alone in a car for any length of time," Collis added.
Police said that Daniel, who was caring for the child, told them she had taken the girl to her office at 105 E. Annandale Rd. and asked her if she wanted to come inside. The child said she preferred to wait in the car and the woman left her with one window of her two-door sedan open about two-inches, officers said.
Daniel, who worked as a sales clerk for Nat-Pac, a food service company, may have thought she would return quickly to the car and begin her rounds, police theorized.But when she entered the office, her supervisor fired her, the investigators said.
"It appears that she just lost all sense of time," said Detective Tuthill.
"She says she was in there for 15 minutes and I think it was more like two hours."
Neither Daniel nor the girl's mother could be reached for comment.
Dectective Tuthill said that an autopsy yesterday revealed no evidence of any previous medical condition that might have caused or contributed to the child's death.
Officials at the National Bureau of Standards said that a closed car especially one with dark seat covers, acts as a solar collector on hot, sunny days. "It was probably like an oven inthat car after a couple of hours," Tuthill said.
Daniel lived in a garden apartment complex in a quiet, middle-class section of Hyattsville. Neighbors said that Daniel, who grew up in the Washington area, had lived there about two years.
Employment records indicate that Daniel had studied business administration at Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C., and at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo. Before her employment in Falls Church she worked as an administrative aide for the Montgomery County Board of Education and as a salesperson with Fuller Products.
"It's just an awful thing for everyone," said a supervisor at the firm where Daniel worked. "We all feel so sorry that this happened."