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Inquiry, cautions follow 2 deaths in Franklin

Children’s suffocation in hope chest deemed a ‘tragic accident’

The two Franklin children who suffocated Sunday in a sealed hope chest died of a “tragic accident,’’ preliminary autopsy results showed Tuesday, as a federal agency launched an investigation into the deaths.

During an apparent game of hide-and-seek, 7-year-old Sean Munroe and his 8-year-old sister Lexi climbed inside a wooden storage chest that automatically latched shut when closed and could not be opened from the inside. The chest, determined by investigators to have been made in 1939, was part of a 1996 recall of 12 million such chests made by Lane Furniture of Virginia after reports of at least six children suffocating inside.

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On Tuesday, District Attorney Michael Morrissey urged those who own Lane hope chests and similar models to check the lock to prevent similar tragedies.

“It’s not just Lane hope chests,” he said. “This is something that was very popular.”

The Consumer Product Safety Commission also announced Tuesday that it had opened a formal investigation into the children’s deaths.

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“We are looking into whether additional outreach and education about the previously announced recall is needed at this time,” said Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the agency. “We want consumers to know that as long as companies are viable, recalls go on forever.”

Though investigators believe that the children’s deaths were accidental, a formal determination of their cause of death has not yet been made, pending toxicology tests, Morrissey said.

The children were last seen by their family at dinner at 6 p.m. Sunday. When they were discovered around 8 p.m., they were unresponsive. It’s not known how long the children were locked inside the airtight chest.

Sean Munroe, the children’s father, was watching television and was unaware the siblings were in distress, his brother told the Globe Monday. Their mother was not at home.

According to Morrissey, the chest was purchased secondhand roughly 15 years ago, and was in one of the children’s bedrooms.

In a statement, Heritage Home Group, a Missouri-based company that acquired Lane last year, expressed condolences to the Munroe family and urged other hope chest owners to replace the locks on the recalled chests.

Lane Furniture and the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a second advisory for the hope chests in 2000, after another suffocation death and two near fatalities to children who became trapped in the chests. The company estimated that of the 12 million chests sold between 1912 and 1987, six million still needed replacement locks, which it provided free of charge.

“The chests are often handed down through families, and it is likely that many were purchased secondhand,” the 2000 advisory stated. Chests manufactured after 1987 were made with safety locks that can be opened from the inside.

But in recent decades, at least 15 children have died after being trapped inside hope chests, trunks, or similar storage containers, according to government records.

Among those killed in hope chests is Natalie Massarella, a 15-year-old from Reynoldsburg, Ohio, who died in 1999.

“We don’t know how she did it,” her mother, Mary, recalled Tuesday. “She must have been sitting in there, and the lid came down and locked. No one could hear her.”

The lid was so heavy, she said, that there was “no way she could have gotten out.”

A petite girl, Massarella had been in her room with her door locked, music playing loudly, her mother said.

Mary Massarella said she had no idea about the recall of the hope chests at the time. She said she was terribly upset by the deaths of the children in Franklin.

“I just don’t think people really know” about the recall, she said.

In that vein, children’s and consumer advocates are renewing calls for public awareness of safety recalls, even those involving old, secondhand items that may not seem dangerous.

“Standards have changed over time,” said Nikki Fleming, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which provides a searchable database of safety recalls at the agency’s website. “But a lot of times consumers may not know.”

Safety advocates said the fatal accident underscores the potential risks involved in older products without contemporary safeguards and the challenges of informing the public of potential dangers.

“It’s very difficult,” said Adele Meyer, executive director of the Association of Resale Professionals, a trade group for consignment and thrift stores. “We try and educate everyone that you can’t resell recalled products.”

Meyer said the recall of the Lane hope chests was widely publicized; she said she was saddened that chests with the unsafe locks were still in circulation.

“I had hoped all of those were repurposed or destroyed,” Meyer said. “They are so low to the ground, so children can get into them. They are just a natural attraction to a child.”

Maria McMahon, trauma center manager at Boston Children’s Hospital and the coordinator for Safe Kids Massachusetts, urged parents to research whether products they own have been recalled, particularly hand-me-downs and secondhand items.

“You have to have due diligence, because you don’t know its history,” she said. “It’s constant, but it’s something you have to think about as a parent.”

Advocates acknowledged that many parents will not be so vigilant, particularly about items that seem safe. But they urged parents to look at their homes through a child’s eyes to identify potential dangers.

“The key is to try and think like a child and try to anticipate what they would do,” McMahon said. “There are so many things you might not think of.”

Meyer said members of the resellers group receive regular updates on recalls from the Consumer Product Safety Commission and carefully screen donations to make sure they do not include recalled items.

“They go through them as they come in, so they never hit the floor,” she said. “They aren’t allowed to be sold, and most stores are pretty diligent.”

Thrift stores are supposed to go a step further, she said, and destroy donated items that may pose a safety risk.

“If they receive a crib where the slats are too wide, we tell them to saw right through them,” she said. “Don’t even put them out by the trash.”

The group also recommends that thrift stores not sell car seats, as they could have unseen damage.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has also reached out directly to secondhand stores, urging them not to make recalled items available.

“We are trying to get onto the back end,” Fleming said. “The idea is not to recirculate a product that could potentially be dangerous.”

The agency also works with shopping websites, such as eBay, Amazon.com, and Craigslist, to reduce sales of recalled items, by urging them to monitor listings on their sites.

On the agency’s website, parents can sign up to receive e-mail notifications of any recalls.

Julie Vallese, managing director of public and government affairs for the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, a trade group, encouraged people to review recall information and buy new versions of items that have evolving safety standards, such as cribs and car seats.

“Those recalls are there forever,” she said.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete. David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.
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