Origins: We've detailed other 911 oddities, including the tale of a woman who called 911 to report that a fast food outlet wasn't making her cheeseburger to her satisfaction,
the legend of a motorist who struck a deer that subsequently turned on him, causing him to make a panicked plea for a "bambulance," strange instances of phones whose batteries were dying calling for help, and even true life stories about criminals who have inadvertently called 911 on themselves. Even so, this particular story is a first for us, in that vegetables are not normally known to request police assistance.
In November 1990, police in the Virginia town of Blacksburg were inundated with a flurry of 911 calls from the home of Linda and Danny Hurst. While they quickly ascertained both Hursts were elsewhere and thus weren't themselves trying to summon help, the source of the calls remained a mystery. Had a burglar who had broken in run into trouble that necessitated a police rescue? Was some unknown person being held hostage in the house? Or had perhaps the phone malfunctioned?
Sheriff's deputies entered the home with guns drawn, then searched the residence top to bottom.
No burglars or hostages were found. Then Danny Hurst, who had been called to the scene, discovered an overripe tomato in a hanging wire basket dripping juice onto a telephone-answering machine below.
As best police were able to determine, the juice from the distressed tomato shorted out the machine's dialing system, causing it to call the Sheriff's Department emergency line.
"I didn't know the answering machine could even dial out," Linda Hurst said. "It's just supposed to take messages."
Said humorist Dave Barry of the incident:
Fortunately the tomato didn't try anything stupid at that point, so the matter was resolved peacefully, but you shudder to think what might have happened if it had been a more volatile vegetable, such as an asparagus or, God forbid, a zucchini.
In the 20+ years since the over-juiced tomato made headlines, the tale of its final call has changed in the telling. In this 2000 Today interview, for instance, Leland Gregory (author of numerous books, including What's the Number for 911? and America's Dumbest Criminals) alters the details, turning the dripping juice into the tomato itself, having it fall from the refrigerator rather than drop from a basket suspended above the imperiled machine, and having it land on a telephone's speed dial rather than an answering device. The discoverer of the mayhem was also changed from one of the home's residents to a bemused policeman.
COURIC: What happened here?
Mr. GREGORY: Well, with e-911 like I said, every time a call is made, they automatically trace it back. Now if there's — if there's no response, that can mean one of two things. Either they're — it was a misdial, or someone's in such duress that they can't speak.
Mr. GREGORY: So they automatically dispatch an officer. Well, in this case a call came in, no one was on the line. They dispatched an officer. He knocked on the door. There was no one there. He let himself in because it was an emergency situation. Searched the entire house. Couldn't find anybody there. And as he's leaving he passes the kitchen, looks at the telephone in the kitchen, and there's a tomato on the speed dial. And the only thing that he could figure out was that it had somehow fallen off — 'I've fallen and I can't get up.' It fell off the refrigerator onto the — onto the keypad and called 911.
In similar vein, a 2005 recounting of the event in The Roanoke Times (a paper that covered the original incident) had the juice flowing off a counter and onto the phone:
Several years ago, juice from a rotten tomato rolled off a counter at a woman's home, landed on a phone and sent a volley of unexplainable 911 calls to the dispatchers.
All of which only goes to show that a good story will almost always change at least a little bit in the telling. Interestingly, changes that naturally occur to such stories tend to work to make them more plausible, as was the case with the alterations noted above. Answering machines aren't noted for their ability to initiate phone calls, hence the unconscious switch to the tomato's juice (or the tomato itself) striking a phone. Similarly, since in most homes tomatoes aren't kept suspended in baskets, plausibility shifts in the story worked to place the tomato in a seemingly more likely spot, such as resting on a counter or atop the refrigerator.
Barbara "as for the actual pranking tomato, we suspect it was thoroughly grilled by the police" Mikkelson