The little girl didn't know a growing crowd was rooting for her safety as Denton firefighters pried open a gun safe she had been trapped in for more than 30 minutes Tuesday evening.
Thankfully, the story had a happy ending. She was safe, uninjured and didn't even seem upset after her dramatic rescue at the Academy Sports and Outdoors store in the 2600 block of West University Drive. Fire officials said the girl was either 4 or 5 years old.
Kenneth Hedges, a fire department spokesman, said firefighters received the emergency call at 6:42 p.m. Tuesday and arrived at the Academy store at 6:52 p.m. It's unclear exactly how long the girl had been in the safe before the emergency call, Hedges said.
"This is a very specialized incident, and you don't get these very often," he said.
Firefighters were initially concerned the girl wasn't getting enough oxygen in the safe, which was on display at the front of the store. But she didn't appear to be under any stress while she was communicating with her mother from inside, Hedges said.
The events leading up to the incident are still unclear, Hedges said. Responding firefighters don't know whether the girl locked herself inside or not.
Hedges said "one or two kids" were with the mother at the time, but he didn't know whether they were involved.
The fire department didn't identify the girl. Hedges said no investigation is necessary because it wasn't a criminal offense and the girl is OK.
Witnesses said the safe was about 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide. The girl couldn't move inside because her head was pinned against an interior shelf and the door, Hedges said.
The safe locking mechanism is a keypad attached to the door. Hedges said store employees were typing the code to open the safe when firefighters arrived. But after the code was entered incorrectly several times, the safe went into "lockdown" mode, locking the door for an unknown amount of time, Hedges said.
He didn't know whether the employees had caused the lockdown. In any case, responding firefighters needed to know what type of locking mechanism they were dealing with, and how they could bypass the lockdown.
They called Laura's Locksmith & Security Store, also located on West University Drive, for help. One employee, Douglas Smith, called a fire department supervisor and warned against tampering with the key pad.
Smith said the lockdown could last up to 15 minutes. Trying to break or punch the key pad would just make matters worse, he said.
"I called him (the fire department supervisor) and said don't try anything, because there are things inside the safe that could set off what they call re-lockers. Then, all of the sudden, you're not going to get them out at all, because [the re-lockers] throw hidden locks that you can't manipulate from outside of the safe. You have to drill holes in certain spots and pry it open," said Smith, who has been a locksmith for about 25 years.
To make matters more complicated, another Laura's locksmith employee told firefighters they would have to call a specialty locksmith company in Dallas to properly open the safe. But the firefighters didn't have time to wait, so they used special hand tools to pry it open.
"If it would have been a better safe, they wouldn't have been able to pry it open," Smith said, adding that the gun safe doors were relatively thin.
Smith was inside the store when the firefighters got the girl out. He described a large crowd gathered around the safe, and some people clapped when the door finally opened, he said.
"She wasn't crying. She wasn't screaming. She was just kind of still," He said. "I think one of the big things was that, as soon as they popped open the door, she saw how many people were there ... they all had their phones out,watching the firefighters get it open."
"Can you imagine being locked in a [safe] in total darkness for half an hour when you're about 4 or 5 years old?" Smith added.
The girl didn't appear to have any bumps or bruises, Hedges said. He didn't know whether the mother or the store initially called police.
Elise Hasbrook, an Academy spokeswoman, did not respond to a call for comment.
On Wednesday, the nine safes inside the store were all locked and closed. It's unknown whether they are typically open during business hours. The safes' prices ranged from $100 to $1,000.
JULIAN GILL can be reached at 940-566-6882.