Mary Massarella tried not to panic as she searched her Reynoldsburg home for her teenage daughter. She picked the lock on Natalie's bedroom door and looked under the bed and in the closet. Her husband, Mark, arrived home, and they rushed from room to room, calling her name.
Mary Massarella tried not to panic as she searched her Reynoldsburg home for her teenage daughter.
She picked the lock on Natalie’s bedroom door and looked under the bed and in the closet.
Her husband, Mark, arrived home, and they rushed from room to room, calling her name.
Had she sneaked out? That wasn’t like Natalie, a fun-loving girl who was active in choir and church.
Mary ran back to her daughter’s room. That’s when she noticed that the Lane cedar chest at the end of Natalie’s bed had been cleared off. She pushed the button that released the chest’s heavy lid and lifted, then gasped.
Natalie was inside.
Fifteen years later, Mrs. Massarella still cries when she tells the story of the day the couple’s oldest daughter suffocated in a cedar chest at age 15.
“You never get over it,” she said in a choked voice as she and her husband sat in the living room of their Reynoldsburg home last week.
At the time — Feb. 24, 1999 — Reynoldsburg police theorized that Natalie had been sitting inside the chest when the lid slammed down, trapping her. The latch on the chest could be opened only from the outside.
“We’ll never know why she was in there or what happened exactly,” Mr. Massarella said.
The Massarellas did not speak publicly about their loss when their daughter died. But when they heard three weeks ago that two more children had died the same way, they had had enough.
“Reliving what happened to Natalie is not our favorite thing, but if it gets the word out and gets people to change those locks, we’re willing to do it,” Mr. Massarella said.
They spoke to reporters in the Boston area, where the most-recent deaths occurred; last week, they taped a segment that is to appear on NBC’s Inside Edition.
On Jan. 12, 7-year-old Sean Monroe and his sister, 8-year-old Lexi, climbed into a 1939 Lane cedar chest while playing hide-and-seek in their home in Franklin, Mass. Their father was watching television in another room.
Two hours after the children were last seen, they were found in the chest.
In 1987, 12 years before Natalie’s death, Lane stopped using latches that release only from the outside and began using latches that can be released from the inside. By then, an estimated 12 million Lane and Virginia Maid cedar chests — both made by Lane Furniture — had been manufactured since 1912.
At the prompting of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Lane recalled the chests in 1996 and offered owners new locks free of charge.
The commission has not been able to disclose how many of the chests have been retrofitted. The Lane website says that 6 million chests still need to have their locks replaced.
The commission estimates that 20 people have died in cedar chests with automatic locks. Most have been children:
• In 2001, three children died together in a Lane cedar chest in St. Louis, and two brothers died in one chest in Springfield, Mass.
• In 2002, three sisters died together in a chest in Unity, Wis.
• In 2004, two brothers died in a chest in Somerset County, Pa.
• In 2011, a 13-year-old girl died in a chest in Port St. John, Fla.
Most of the deaths occurred in Lane cedar chests, said Scott Wolfson, communications director for the commission. The commission issued warnings about the chest in 1996, 2000 and 2006.
Lane paid a $900,000 civil penalty in 2001 for not reporting that five children had suffocated in its chests that year.
Wolfson said last week that the commission hopes to renew efforts to publicize the danger. Selling a chest with the dangerous latch is illegal, he said. The commission has the power to levy $100,000 fines for violations of federal law.
Last year, Lane was acquired by Heritage Home Group. After the January deaths, the company offered condolences in a statement and said that replacement locks remain available.
The Massarellas’ guilt and grief increased when they learned that at least six children had suffocated in cedar chests before their daughter died.
“You don’t think of it as being airtight or being a danger,” Mrs. Massarella said. “It’s something that’s passed down from generation to generation. Lots of people have these chests. They last forever.”
Mrs. Massarella said they hadn’t heard about the recall before Natalie’s death. If they had, they said, they never would have brought the chest — which Mrs. Massarella inherited after her grandmother’s death in 1998 — into their home.
“I’ve never met a single person who knew about the recall,” Mr. Massarella said.
Mrs. Massarella believes that stickers warning of the hazard should have been put in the chests before they were sold, similar to suffocation warnings on plastic bags. Anyone reselling a chest should be required to do that, too, she said.
“If they’d done that, we’d still have our child.”
To request a replacement lock from Lane, visit http://www.lanefurniture.com/CustomerService/Lock-Replacement.aspx or call 800-327-6944.