Fort Worth

A toddler’s tragic death, a family’s promise to ‘never forget her’

The door is always open to the nursery where Sammie Volmert died.
The door is always open to the nursery where Sammie Volmert died. mfaulkner@star-telegram.com

The door to Sammie Volmert’s nursery is open.

Keri Volmert walks in, glancing at the baskets of stuffed animals and miniature grand piano her daughter loved to pound. She runs her hand along the side of the white wooden crib.

“I can’t stand to see the door closed,” Volmert said, softly. “I don’t want to ever feel like we’ve forgotten about her.”

 

Sammie Volmert, 17 months old, died of hyperthermia after the upstairs heater malfunctioned in her Aledo home. Temperature in the nursery exceeded 100 degrees. (Star-Telegram/Max Faulkner)

Four months have passed. Four months since Sammie’s father, Larry, climbed the stairs of their two-story home on a Monday morning. Four months since he was struck by a sudden, sweltering heat and wondered why it was so hot. Four months since he found Sammie in her crib and screamed for his wife.

Eventually, the Tarrant County medical examiner would determine that Sammie had died of hyperthermia, elevated body temperature.

And eventually, the Volmerts would learn their upstairs heating system had malfunctioned and that the temperature in the nursery exceeded 100 degrees.

Sammie was 17 months.

‘A wonderful baby’

When the music turned on, Sammie would dance, her small blonde head bopping to the beat.

She devoured food, happily eating sushi and smoked salmon and mushrooms. She played with her big brother’s trucks and loved trying on her mama’s jewels and shoes.

“Sammie was our precious doll,” said Debbie Hall, her grandmother. “She was always smiling, always happy as sweet as could be. She was a wonderful baby.”

72 degrees Was the thermostat was set on. The temperature upstairs exceeded 100 degrees.

On her last night, Keri dressed her in a light sleep sack and placed her in the crib. Within a couple of minutes, she fell asleep.

Outside, the weather was mild for February. Upstairs, the thermostat was set at 72 degrees. Her 3-year-old brother, Jackson, scared of monsters, slept downstairs in his parents’ room.

Sammie never cried out that night. Doctors said she died in her sleep. Authorities would later tell them that Jackson might have died, as well, if he had been sleeping upstairs.

Young children cannot regulate their own body temperature and do not sweat as much as adults, which makes them more susceptible to overheating, said Dr. Todd Wolf, a pediatric emergency physician for Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth.

Overheating in a home, however, is rare, he added. Most overheating cases in the emergency room are from children who were outdoors.

“The bottom line is this is quite rare and very tragic,” Dr. Wolf said. “No one could predict something like this.”

‘We did everything’

Days and weeks passed in a blur.

Friends organized a closed-casket funeral at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Aledo. Close friend Heather Rogers, who gave the eulogy, said Sammie captured people with her sweet smile.

“As hard as it will be to do,” Rogers said, “I know we must choose the joy her hugs, dances, smiles and belly laughs brought and focus on that when we miss her.”

At night, Volmert began to research online and learned of 2-year-old twin boys in Georgia who died in 2009 when their upstairs heater malfunctioned. She reached out to the family.

Volmert created a Facebook page, “Remembering Sammie Joyce Volmert,” where she shared their story along with family photos. The page has received more than 10,500 likes.

The bottom line is this is quite rare and very tragic. No one could predict something like this.

Dr. Todd Wolf, a pediatric ER physician

Dozens of people have contacted the Volmerts to share similar stories. One parent said she found her child burning up in the middle of the night when the heater malfunctioned, and she threw her in cold bath.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” Larry Volmert said. “We did everything we knew to keep our daughter safe.”

The Volmerts want to share their story so others will be aware. They have since discovered a baby monitor equipped with a temperature sensor and alarm. Authorities are still investigating what caused the heating system to malfunction.

Forever 17 months old

Some moments steal Keri’s breath. Recently, she opened her daughter’s closet and saw a tiny pair of gold boots, still unzipped.

“I realized how long it had been since I’ve gotten her dressed,” she said. “And it hit me.”

On a recent day, the family visited the Fort Worth Zoo, one of Sammie’s favorite places. A friend is donating a bench in Sammie’s honor, and Keri needed to choose a place for it.

Just days before she died, Sammie had run around the zoo, begging to be chased, and Keri shot a quick cell phone video.

Now, she closed her eyes and saw her daughter, running and giggling, forever 17 months old.

Sarah Bahari: 817-390-7056, @sarahbfw

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