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Fire chief cites lag in toxicology request

By Fred Clasen-Kelly, Gavin Off and Ames Alexander
frkelly@charlotteobserver.com

BOONE The death of an 11-year-old boy at a Boone hotel might have been prevented if state medical examiners had ordered routine carbon monoxide testing earlier this year when two other people died in the same room, a public official said Tuesday.

Authorities found elevated carbon monoxide levels in the hotel room where Jeffrey Lee Williams of Rock Hill died last weekend from asphyxia.

Boone Fire Chief Jimmy Isaacs told the Observer the state medical examiner’s office should have asked his department to conduct carbon monoxide tests in April when a couple died in Room No. 225.

Instead, the state took until Monday – nearly two months later – to determine through blood tests that carbon monoxide killed Daryl Dean Jenkins, 73, and Shirley Mae Jenkins, 72, both of Longview, Wash.

Experts from other states said that toxicology tests for carbon monoxide in corpses can take as little as 15 minutes to complete.

“You’re not asking any questions we aren’t asking ourselves,” Isaacs said.

“What is the missing piece that could speed this process up?”

Also on Tuesday, Mark Brumbaugh, a lawyer who is representing the Jenkinses, said the three deaths were “so unnecessary and avoidable.”

The Jenkins family immediately suspected carbon monoxide poisoning after their parents died, Brumbaugh said.

“They were very active and healthy…,” he said. “The idea that they both suffered fatal heart attacks was not frankly believable.”

Ricky Diaz, a spokesman the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the state’s medical examiner system, would not answer questions about the handling of the Jenkins investigation.

Asked why it took about two months to produce blood test results, Diaz said, “I can’t really speculate.”

He refused to release death reports in the three cases, saying the reports have not been completed.

‘The silent killer’

Often called “the silent killer,” carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that inhibits the blood’s ability to carry oxygen and can cause severe illness or death in minutes.

It’s emitted by cars and other fuel-burning machinery, including pool heaters.

Boone police said Room 225, where Williams and the Jenkinses died, is directly above a pool equipment room that houses a natural gas heater.

Indoor pool heaters can leak carbon monoxide if not properly installed or maintained, said Carvin DiGiovanni, senior director of technology and standards for the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals in Virginia.

“There are very strict guidelines on how to install this equipment just to avoid that same issue,” DiGiovanni said.

In 1994, an improperly installed exhaust pipe from a pool heater led to the death of tennis star Vitas Gerulaitis in Suffolk County, N.Y., authorities said. Gerulaitis was sleeping in a cottage above the pool when carbon monoxide fumes seeped in.

At a Tuesday news conference, Watauga County Health Department officials said they’re not responsible for inspecting the heater or monitoring the gases they release.

They said such ventilation falls under the N.C. mechanical code.

A representative for the Boone Planning and Inspections department declined to comment, saying the investigation was ongoing and the police were handling the matter.

Cause-of-death probes

Families, law enforcement and others count on medical examiners to find the cause of death in shootings, suicides, and other sudden or suspicious deaths.

A strong investigation can help solve crimes, determine insurance payouts, identify public health threats and ensure nothing is overlooked in a suspicious death.

Dr. Ljubisa Dragovic, chief medical examiner in Oakland County, Mich., typically completes blood testing for carbon monoxide poisoning “in a matter of hours.”

Told that North Carolina officials took months to complete testing on the Jenkins, he called that “unbelievable.”

“You have to act fast” because when carbon monoxide goes undetected in public spaces it can kill multiple people, Dragovic said.

Dr. Brian Peterson, chief medical examiner for Milwaukee County, Wis., said it appears that North Carolina officials did not initially suspect carbon monoxide poisoning when Jenkins died.

Typically, Peterson said, a medical examiner would alert fire and police officials if they believed the gas caused a death.

Family’s reaction

Jeffrey Williams was found dead in bed Saturday at Boone’s Best Western Plus Blue Ridge Plaza, according to a 911 tape.

Authorities have said he died from asphyxia, but blood tests were not complete.

His mother, Jeannie Williams, 49, who was also staying at the hotel, was hospitalized at Watauga Medical Center.

On Tuesday, Jeannie Williams’ family released a public statement.

“We support a full investigation into the cause of this horrible tragedy and we will not rest until we are satisfied with the outcome. The loss of Jeffrey from our family is immeasurable.”

Brumbaugh, the Jenkins’ attorney, said the family is considering filing a lawsuit, but “we’d hope the hotel would accept responsibility for the tragedies voluntarily.”

“Right now, (the family’s) main concern is making sure this never happens again,” he said. Staff writer Chelsey Fisher contributed.

Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027
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