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Emails shed new light on Boone carbon monoxide deaths

Health inspector Lori Durham burst into the Boone hotel room and saw one body lying on the floor and another in the hot tub.

“The woman was having CPR done on her,” Durham said, according to emails describing the events of April 16 at the Best Western.

“I jumped over the woman and got into the tub with the man and started doing chest compressions. … I felt no pulse, and he was cold to the touch.”

When emergency workers arrived minutes later, Durham asked if the room’s fireplace gas was off. It wasn’t.

Despite questions from the inspector and others, it wasn’t until two months later – after an 11-year-old boy died in the same room – that authorities determined there was something in the air that killed Daryl and Shirley Jenkins: not natural gas from the fireplace but leaking carbon monoxide from a pool heater below the room.

The Observer obtained emails from the Appalachian District Health Department related to the three deaths.

The emails – along with new interviews with public officials and a witness – provide the most detailed account to date about what happened in Room 225.

That information shines additional light on a fragmented emergency response system in which officials from various agencies narrowly defined their responsibilities – and missed opportunities to protect the public from a grave threat.

And it raises new questions about why fire officials did no tests on the air quality in the room the day the Jenkinses died.

Other public agencies also failed to act on signs of trouble.

The Observer previously reported that a Watauga County medical examiner did not ask for expedited tests to determine whether poisonous substances played any role in the Jenkinses’ deaths. It took nearly two months for the medical examiner’s office to complete toxicology tests on the couple.

Even after a June 1 report by the state medical examiner’s office showed a lethal level of carbon monoxide in Shirley Jenkins’ blood, no one took quick action. Seven days later, Jeffrey Williams of Rock Hill was found dead and his mother, Jeannie Williams, unconscious in the same hotel room. The cause: carbon monoxide poisoning.

Dr. Jonathan Weisbuch, former director of the Maricopa County Health Department in Arizona, said it appears there were multiple breakdowns in the emergency response following the April deaths.

“When something bad happens, in many cases because we are human beings, we say it’s not my job,” Weisbuch said.

A terrifying scene

The panic began about 9:45 a.m. on April 16, when traveling companions asked hotel housekeeping staff to check on the Jenkinses.

The couple weren’t breathing.

Health inspectors Durham and Monica Randolph were in the hotel conducting a routine inspection when a housekeeper called for help.

They rushed to the second-floor room and saw a terrifying scene.

“Upon arrival to room, the entrance way was blocked by an elderly lady laying on floor and several people (family and housekeeping staff) around her doing CPR,” Randolph said, according to email.

Durham had jumped into a hot tub to reach Daryl Jenkins and began performing chest compressions.

“EMS arrived and I got out of tub and asked about the fireplace and whether or not the gas was off. I turned off the gas, as asked by police,” Durham said, according to email.

Officials have concluded the pool heater, located in a mechanical room directly below Room 225, where the deaths occurred, likely released the carbon monoxide. They suspect the colorless, odorless gas entered the hotel room either through a wall-mounted HVAC unit or an opening for a fireplace that used natural gas.

Appalachian District Health Director Beth Lovette said she has instructed employees not to speak with reporters about the deaths.

Asked if Durham feared carbon monoxide or other dangerous gases were in the hotel room, Lovette said she didn’t know.

She said her agency did not share the inspectors’ accounts with other agencies. Lovette asked Durham and Randolph to give statements to the agency because she said she considered their actions “heroic.”

An email shows Boone police took down Durham’s name and contact information the day the Jenkinses died but did not talk to Durham or other health officials about the case afterward.

A patrol officer who spoke with Durham failed to pass those notes to the investigator, Boone Police Capt. Andy LeBeau said.

LeBeau acknowledged that was a mistake but said “I don’t know how important that information was. I’m sure if it was, she would have contacted us.”

After the Jenkinses’ bodies were discovered, a police officer asked fire officials about the “air quality” in the room, LeBeau said. An officer also noted the smell of chlorine in the hotel lobby coming from the swimming pool, he said.

Firefighters assured police there was no evidence of poisonous gas, LeBeau said.

As a result, police were forced to wait for toxicology tests on the Jenkinses, LeBeau said.

“It was a mystery,” he said.

Boone police have previously said that the department renewed a request for the Jenkinses’ toxicology reports on May 29.

But police said they did not receive the lab results for the couple until June 10, after Williams died.

“Why it takes six to eight weeks to get the results back from the medical examiner’s office, I still don’t understand,” Boone Fire Chief Jimmy Isaacs said.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the medical examiner’s office, has said Watauga County Medical Examiner Dr. Brent Hall failed to make the state aware that officials needed to act urgently.

Hall, who resigned last month, investigated all three deaths in the hotel. He has declined requests for interviews.

Documents show that Hall requested the toxicology tests on the Jenkinses and wrote that the probable cause of death might be an overdose.

Were key signs missed?

Isaacs, the fire chief, said he doesn’t recall any fire officials assuring police there was no evidence of poisonous gas.

He also said the possibility that carbon monoxide or other poisonous gas might have killed the Jenkinses never crossed his mind at the time.

“We had a discussion at the scene about what were our possibilities,” he said. “That’s not one of the possibilities we came up with.”

Isaacs added: “If we got fooled by this … if we didn’t pick up on this, it seems like there were a lot of other levels that missed it.”

Firefighters are trained to perform a quick check for possible hazards to emergency responders. “I did that survey and did not see any obvious hazards,” Isaacs said.

At the time, only one of their vehicles, the heavy-rescue truck, carried a four-gas monitor – able to detect for the presence of carbon monoxide, as well as methane, hydrogen sulfide and oxygen. That rescue truck did not respond to the Best Western in April.

“Knowing what we know now, yes, that would have been a good idea to have a four-gas monitor at that scene. Would we have found anything? Probably not.”

Earlier this month, fire officials put gas monitors on all four of their fire engines as well.

An unsuccessful rescue

Patyse and Gary Watt – Shirley Jenkins’ brother – were traveling with the Jenkinses when they died.

The couples had come to North Carolina to learn more about nearby Todd, the small mountain town where Gary Watt’s and Shirley Jenkins’ mother had grown up.

On April 16, the four of them were supposed to meet for breakfast. When Daryl and Shirley Jenkins didn’t show up, the Watts asked hotel staff to check on them.

Housekeepers entered the room, then rushed downstairs to tell the Watts that something was wrong.

The Watts entered to find Shirley Jenkins lying on the floor, near the door. Daryl Jenkins was in an empty tub.

It was clear Daryl Jenkins was already dead. Shirley Jenkins “just looked like she had passed out,” so her brother began performing CPR on her, Patsye Watt said. He couldn’t save her.

Afterward, the hotel staff was compassionate but close-mouthed. “They’d been instructed not to say anything,” Patsye Watt said.

Patsye Watt said she suspected immediately the couple did not die from natural causes and that “there was something wrong with the room.”

The Jenkinses were healthy, active and happy, Watt said.

Daryl Jenkins, 73, a retired youth counselor, collected African beads and took up snowboarding on his 70th birthday. Shirley Jenkins, 72, a retired office manager for a natural gas company, loved watching old movies and reading biographies.

“There was no earthly reason they should have died in the same room on the same night,” Watt said.

Local and state officials said they are now assessing how they can prevent future deaths. Under a bill approved by the N.C. House, the state’s hotels would be required to install carbon monoxide detectors near fuel-burning appliances.

“The sad deaths of Shirley and Daryl Jenkins and Jeffrey Williams remain on my heart and mind,” Lovette said. Staff writers Rick Rothacker and Gavin Off contributed.

Clasen-Kelly: 704-358-5027 Alexander: 704-358-5060
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