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Carbon monoxide linked to hotel deaths


BOONE Police on Monday said elevated carbon monoxide levels were found in a hotel room where an 11-year-old boy died over the weekend, two months after the poisonous gas killed an elderly couple in the same room.

Authorities said an autopsy of Jeffrey Lee Williams of Rock Hill indicated he died from asphyxia, though blood tests were not complete. Jeffrey was found Saturday in a room at Best Western Plus Blue Ridge Plaza, where he was staying with his mother, Jeannie Williams.

Williams, 49, remained hospitalized Monday at Watauga Medical Center.

At a Monday news conference, Boone police Sgt. Shane Robbins said newly obtained blood test results show carbon monoxide killed Daryl Dean Jenkins, 73, and Shirley Mae Jenkins, 72, both of Longview, Wash. They were found April 16, also in Room 225.

The revelations raised new questions about the death investigations, including why blood test results in the Jenkins’ deaths took two months to complete.

A spokesman for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the state’s medical examiner’s office, refused to release death reports in the three cases, saying they were incomplete.

The Observer requested an interview with N.C. Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Deborah Radisch, but spokesman Ricky Diaz said she would not be available.

Documents obtained by the Observer Monday show the Watauga County Health Department inspectors found deficiencies at the Best Western’s indoor swimming pool earlier this year.

Though it was not clear what role the deficiencies might have played in the deaths, the bottom-floor pool is below the second-floor room where the deaths occurred. Room 225 is directly above a room with a natural gas heater for the pool, police said.

A March 6 inspection showed the pool’s pump was not approved by an industry standards group. The report also found the pool’s chemical and equipment room needed better ventilation.

“This needs to be corrected ASAP,” wrote the county health inspector.

Police said Monday that they were unaware of the county health department report and that it would be up to the health department to follow up on its inspection.

Health department officials declined to comment Monday.

North Carolina is among 27 states that require carbon monoxide alarms in new homes. It does not require alarms in hotels, according to the Carbon Monoxide Safety Association.

Boone Fire Chief James Isaacs said the law should be changed to require them. “This is a prime example where changes to the code are necessary,” he said.

The health department report listed Appalachian Hospitality Management as the hotel’s owner. A representative could not be reached for comment.

Investigation continues

Jeffrey Williams was found dead in bed Saturday, according to a 911 tape obtained by the Observer.

Police closed the hotel, and it remained encircled in yellow tape on Monday.

Later this week, the North Carolina State Board of Examiners of Plumbing, Heating and Fire Sprinkler Contractors will join the investigation, police said.

Jeffrey’s mother has awakened from a medically induced coma but is still “a little groggy,” said Darrell Williams, Jeffrey’s uncle.

“She has no memory of what happened,” he said. “But she’s alive.”

Darrell Williams said the mother and son left Rock Hill on Friday to pick up his niece from a camp in the mountains the next morning.

The 911 call came in at around 12:30 p.m. Saturday. “Oh ma’am this is awful, please,” the caller said.

Longtime concerns

According to a January investigation by USA Today, eight hotel guests nationwide had died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the past three years. More than 170 have undergone treatment.

The review also found few states require carbon monoxide alarms in hotels, though the National Fire Protection Agency recommends them for every home.

“They’re intended to provide a warning of a serious malfunction,” said David Lipton, industrial hygiene consultant with the N.C. Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology. “If they go off, there’s a dangerous and potentially lethal amount of carbon monoxide in the air.”

Robbins said Monday that the hotel did not have alarms, which cost about $30 and can last seven years.

Carbon monoxide has killed some 400 people in North Carolina since 2001, including 39 in Mecklenburg County, an Observer analysis of state death certificate data found. More than half of North Carolina’s carbon monoxide deaths were accidental, data show.

Lipton said the colorless, odorless gas can travel through buildings via vents or air currents. He said some people, such as those with heart disease or a respiratory illness, are more prone to it than others.

Bob Dwyer, director for the Colorado-based Carbon Monoxide Safety Association, said he does not think building codes are strict enough when it comes to protecting the public.

Dwyer said that he’s been in hotel equipment rooms where alarms have been disengaged, rather than replaced or fixed, because they’re considered a nuisance.

“Unfortunately it takes a death or injury to respond,” Dwyer said. “If there’s a source for potential CO emission, people should be protected.” Researcher Maria David and reporters Fred Clasen-Kelly and Neil Haggerty contributed.

Arriero: 704-804-2637
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