The Village Laundromat in Chilhowie, Va., has become an unlikely memorial ground, residents say. Teddy bears, toys and flowers have been placed outside the building where a 5-year-old girl was killed last week after she became trapped inside a washing machine.
Rebecca "Hope" Wagoner was buried yesterday at a cemetery near the southwestern Virginia town of 2,000, and family and friends held a memorial service honoring her life.
Town police are still investigating the death, which residents say is as mystifying as it is distressing. Chilhowie Police Chief Dwayne Sheffield said yesterday that the only witness was Hope's half brother. Sheffield said he will discuss the incident with the prosecutor's office by tomorrow.
Sheffield said an engineer from the washing machine's manufacturer, Pellerin Milnor Corp. of Louisiana, came to town yesterday to determine whether the machine was malfunctioning.
Jim Moran, the company's general counsel, said the washing machine door locks airtight when money is inserted and the door is shut -- and can be closed only from the outside. The door does not open until a cycle is complete, he said, to prevent people from sticking their arms inside the fast-moving cylinder.
"It would be extremely difficult for a little girl to crawl into the machine and would be impossible for her to close the door by herself since there's no place to grab it from the inside," Moran said. "Someone else would have had to close the door. It doesn't close gently. You've got to close it hard."
On Friday night, Hope walked with her mother, Rebecca Billings Wagoner, and her 14-year-old half brother from their home to the nearby Village Laundromat on Lee Highway, Sheffield said.
The children went inside while the mother waited outside for her husband to pick them up, Sheffield said. The family was not there to wash or dry clothing, he said. When Wagoner went inside to check on her children, her son told her that Hope was inside the front-loading washer and could not get out.
The mother used a pay phone to call 911 and told her son to find a rock to break the glass on the machine's door. Police and rescue personnel arrived at 9:25 p.m. and found Hope unconscious on the floor, covered in water and glass.
She was flown to a hospital in neighboring Tennessee, where she was pronounced dead. The medical examiner in Roanoke has not determined a cause of death.
"It's such a strange incident, something you wouldn't think about happening anywhere," said David Haynes, chief of the Chilhowie Fire Department, whose firefighters were so distraught that they were scheduled to meet with counselors last night. "It's struck everybody hard and is the topic of conversation pretty much wherever you go."
Pastor Charles Herrell of the Chilhowie Baptist Church, which Hope attended, said he spoke at her funeral yesterday.
"She had a great love for people. She had a real touch on people's lives," he said. "The service was very hard for the mother and father."