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September 10, 2004
5-month-old was in vehicle for hours in sweltering Santa Ana temperatures

By Amanda Beck

SANTA ANA – A 5-month-old girl apparently died of heat stroke Thursday after she was left inside her father's parked minivan for up to four hours, authorities said.

Witnesses saw the father desperately try to flag down a fire engine at the corner of Main and Third streets after he called 911 about 4:30 p.m.

"He was yelling, 'Help! Help!" said Alex Pereto, a parking lot cashier who watched the scene unfold from across the street.

"Then, in two minutes or less, they came back with a little kid and jumped into the firetruck."

The infant was rushed to Western Medical Center but was dead upon arrival, Santa Ana police spokesman Sgt. Carlos Rojas said. Investigators were questioning the father late Thursday, but he had not been arrested.

The names of the girl and her father were not released.

"I think it's a tragic reminder to people who have children not to leave them in a vehicle," Rojas said. "Today, we saw the results of that decision, and we had a 5-month-old girl who passed away."

The death came on a day when the high temperature hit 93 degrees in Santa Ana -- and far higher inside the vehicle. At least three babies and a toddler have died inside superheated cars in Orange County since 1989.

The last time was in August 2003, when a professor at the University of California, Irvine, inadvertently left his sleeping 10-month-old son in his car after he arrived for work. Three hours later, his son was dead.

The father was not charged.

Research shows that young children are especially vulnerable in similar situations. They can begin to experience heat exhaustion in 90-degree heat and can suffer heat stroke when temperatures rise above 105 degrees.

"I have five children, and ... if this were to happen to me, I don't know what I would do," said Cristina Hernandez, 45, of Santa Ana, who witnessed part of the drama.

She said she was inside a dental office in the Santa Ana Artists Village when she heard sirens. She emerged to see the father pounding his chest.

"He was helpless. He sounded like he was screaming for help," Hernandez said.

After firemen drove away with the infant, the man jumped into his Plymouth Voyager and began to follow behind, Pereto said.

"(He) started driving like crazy," the parking lot attendant said. Rojas said the father called 911 a second time as he headed for the hospital.

But a police dispatcher asked him to pull over -- perhaps because of his distraught state of mind, Rojas said.

The father parked the car outside the Department of Motor Vehicles at the intersection of Grand Avenue and First Street.

Because the car had been moved, investigators are not sure whether the windows were open or closed while the baby was inside.

Rojas said he also didn't know why the father left the infant inside the car or what he was doing in the area.

Criminal charges are not always filed against a parent whose child dies inside a hot car.

According to a 1960 California appellate court ruling, a mere lack of foresight or ordinary carelessness -- however dire its consequences -- is not enough to bring criminal charges in such a case.

Register staff writer Olivia Maciel contributed to this report.

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