Three young children were playing outside their mobile home in rural Florida when something caught their attention - a chest freezer that was sitting on the lawn, unplugged, waiting to be put to use.
A mother of one of the children had gone inside to use the restroom and, when she returned, the children were gone, authorities said.
Authorities said the trio had climbed inside the appliance and closed the door - inadvertently latching a metal hasp that had been installed for a padlock. Investigators believe that it trapped them inside.
The Suwannee County Sheriff's Office said the children, ages 1, 4 and 6, were found unresponsive Sunday evening in Suwannee County, about 70 miles northwest of Gainesville, Florida. They were rushed to a nearby hospital, where they were pronounced dead.
"It's just a real tragic accident," Sheriff Sam St. John said Tuesday in a phone interview with The Washington Post. He said it "devastated" the deputies and hospital personnel.
St. John said the mother, who is the biological mother of the 4-year-old girl, had been watching the children but then stepped away.
When she returned and could not find them, she alerted another adult in the house, who is the grandmother of the 1-year-old girl and the 6-year-old boy, St. John said. The sheriff said the women began to search the property for the children and, about 30 to 45 minutes later, found them in the chest freezer, not breathing.
The young children are suspected to have died of suffocation, though authorities are awaiting autopsy results. No foul play is expected in the case, according to the authorities.
According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, there have been "numerous" reports about children, most of them 4 to 7 years old, who have suffocated after climbing into household appliances, such as freezers, clothes dryers and "old-style latch type refrigerators." The commission said in a safety alert that in these cases, "the doors could not be easily pushed open from the inside."
The safety alert stated:
"Frequently, the children were playing 'hide-and-seek' and the appliance or chest provided a deceptively good place to hide. When the door slammed shut, the tight fitting gasket on most of the appliances cut off air to the child. This, along with the insulated construction of the appliance, also prevented the child's screams from being heard. But abandoned appliances are not the only items involved with accidents like these. Entrapment deaths have been reported in products in use or stored in the kitchen, laundry room, basement, or garage. Deaths also have occurred in ice boxes located in campers parked outside the home."
Safeguards have been put in place to help prevent such tragedies. The Refrigerator Safety Act of 1956, for instance, banned older-style refrigerators that cannot be opened from the inside.
In addition, Florida law prohibits people from knowingly abandoning or discarding airtight appliances such as refrigerators, deep freezers or iceboxes, and clothes washers and dryers.
St. John, the Suwannee County sheriff, said that a primary investigation into the three children's deaths revealed that the chest freezer was brought to the property several days before the incident and had not yet been moved indoors. The case is still under investigation, he said.