As Jeannie Williams describes moments when she feels crushed by grief, her fingers reach involuntarily for a delicate silver heart dangling from her necklace.
“It’s a daily, sometimes hourly, struggle,” she says about losing her 11-year-old son, Jeffrey.
Cradled inside the heart is a tiny oval.
“Some days, I think I’ve got this,” she says. “The next day, you fall off the cliff.”
Jeannie rubs her fingertips over a pattern of ridges in the oval: Jeffrey’s fingerprint engraved on the silver charm, a gift from a friend with help from the funeral home.
More than eight months after Jeffrey died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a Boone hotel room, Jeannie Williams is rebuilding her life. She has a new purpose.
“JeffreysList,” she calls it.
It will be a database of hotels in the Carolinas, and eventually other states, that have carbon monoxide detectors in their guest rooms, part of a larger Jeffrey Lee Williams Foundation designed to educate people about the dangers of the deadly gas.
“I took him into that room,” Jeannie says. “I’m assuming it’s safe.”
For two hours on a snowy afternoon, Jeannie and her husband, Jeff, talk about Jeffrey, about what happened in Boone and what should be done about it. Their only request is that there be no photographs or videos of them breaking down emotionally.
They have shed many tears since Jeffrey died June 8, sometimes when they least expect it – including the day Jeannie drove a car for the first time after Jeffrey died and looked around to the empty seat where he should have been.
But there are no tears during the interview at their church, Northside Baptist in Rock Hill. As Jeff leaves the room to answer calls about his business, Substation Concrete Services, Jeannie cradles Jeffrey’s Bible in her lap and talks with candor, strength and occasional humor.
Her account of what happened after she and Jeffrey checked into Room 225 of the Best Western differs in some details from earlier accounts. Jeannie initially had little memory of what happened, and family members filled in holes she couldn’t. But she says she gradually recalled the following details:
She picked the Best Western in part because of its pool. But Jeffrey forgot his bathing suit, so they never swam. After first checking into a room that smelled of cigarette smoke, they were upgraded to Room 225.
Jeannie telephoned Jeff to let him know they were safely inside the hotel, and Jeffrey took a shower. Then she told Jeffrey he could have some “screen time” on his iPad while she washed her face, removed her contacts and got ready for bed.
She began feeling nauseated while in the bathroom. Her stomach hurt so much, she thought she might pass out. She sat on the toilet and put her head between her knees. Jeannie felt dizzy and was afraid she might fall off, so she decided to get down on the floor. She doesn’t recall falling, but her forehead and hip were injured at some point.
“Jeffrey!” she cried out.
Jeffrey didn’t answer.
Jeannie tried to reach for the door handle, and that’s the last thing she remembers.
Deadly CO levels
Jeannie believes they were in the room less than 30 minutes before they were overcome by the gas. When a housekeeper found them 14 hours later, around 12:25 p.m. on Saturday, June 8, Jeffrey was dead in the bed. Jeannie was unresponsive, curled in a fetal position on the bathroom floor.
Because carbon monoxide is odorless, Jeannie and Jeffrey had no way of knowing it was flowing into the room. When they breathed in, the deadly gas replaced the oxygen in their bloodstream.
Their hearts, brains and other organs were deprived of a basic element of life.
Elderly people and young children are most at risk of death from carbon monoxide. Some victims suffer lifelong injuries, including heart problems that may not show up for years.
At the hospital, doctors placed Jeannie on a ventilator that pushed oxygen back into her lungs.
Heartbreak and confusion
Jeannie didn’t realize at first that it was at the Best Western where Jeffrey died and she was injured. She remembers him happily settling into the room, excited to be staying at a hotel. “My last vision of him is him sitting on the edge of the bed playing an iPad game.”
She assumed they got up the next morning and went to pick up his sister, Breanne, 18, from a Christian-based science camp. She thought perhaps chemicals at the camp had hurt them.
She says she was still confused two days later when she was taken from Boone to Piedmont Medical Center in Rock Hill.
Jeff consoled her. “I’ll tell you everything one day.”
Jeannie spent six more days in the hospital. On June 16, she was brought to Jeffrey’s funeral in a wheelchair.
It’s too soon to say whether Jeannie, 49, will fully recover.
She walks with a limp, and has muscle weakness and numbness in her arms and legs. If you didn’t know her, you might not suspect anything else is wrong. She looks healthy and talks coherently.
But she says she struggles with recall, with vocabulary, and with other cognitive and physical issues she prefers not to discuss.
“I don’t want to come across as being wimpy,” she says.
One thing she didn’t lose is her sense of humor. About possible brain damage, Jeannie says, “I don’t know how much of that is being blonde and being almost 50. ...”
For months after Jeffrey died, Jeannie avoided asking questions about what happened. What did it matter? Jeffrey was dead. Grief and physical therapy consumed her days.
Search for the truth
It was only after Jeannie was interviewed for ABC’s 20/20 news show last month that she read the Dec. 15 Observer investigation detailing the failures by multiple people that led to Jeffrey’s death, beginning with the installation and maintenance of the hotel’s swimming pool water heater.
The gas-fired heater spewed out exorbitant levels of carbon monoxide that leaked through holes in a corroded exhaust pipe into Room 225 above. Daryl and Shirley Jenkins of Washington state died in the same room in April. But firefighters did not check for carbon monoxide. The medical examiner did not expedite toxicology tests on the Jenkinses’ blood. Even after the state lab pinpointed lethal concentrations of the gas, the results were not made public.
Not until Jeffrey died, and Jeannie nearly died, was the leak discovered.
Investigations into the poisonings are ongoing. The former manager of the Best Western has been charged with three counts of involuntary manslaughter and one of assault inflicting serious bodily injury. Three hotel employees and a Boone heating company face possible state disciplinary action. State and Boone officials have also looked into concerns about the way the swimming pool water heater was converted from propane to gas. And both families expect to file wrongful death civil lawsuits.
“I want to educate myself,” Jeannie says. She hopes to learn about the inner workings of a gas water heater and its exhaust system.
She realizes it does matter that she understand the whole story. Who better to warn other mothers?
The abyss of grief
Jeannie and Jeff are sad and hurt – and, yes, angry.
“We’re human,” Jeff says. “They took something we can’t ever replace. But we don’t target our anger toward any one particular entity today because we see no value in it. There will come a time when everyone is held accountable, and we will hold everyone to account.”
Their faith, they say, sustains them.
“As his daddy, not a day goes by that I like it,” Jeff says. “But I have to accept it.”
And this: “He was a great little boy, and he would have been a great man. He was smart. ... We lost that by stupidity.”
Jeffrey enjoyed reading, whether it was the Bible or “The Boxcar Children” series. He played tennis and violin, and had formed a company with 11-year-old friends called “Twelve and Under,” intending to invent a Bible app for computers.
Once when Jeannie and Jeffrey were walking through a department store, she says a person passed by on crutches or in a wheelchair. “I turned around, and he’s standing there and he’s praying. ‘Jeffrey?’ I said, and he told me, ‘I’m praying for that person who’s hurt.’ ”
Through a friend, Jeannie has gotten to know mothers in other states who have lost children, strangers who became friends because they understand. She wants to shield her friends in Rock Hill from a grief she can’t escape and can’t explain to someone who has not lost a child.
“You want to protect them from going into that abyss.”
Love your kids, she tells them. Focus on that. I’ll be OK.
On the eighth day of each month, Jeannie bakes Jeffrey’s favorite dark chocolate brownies. He loved anything chocolate. Breanne takes some to school, and Jeannie gives some to friends.
Brownies are one way to remember Jeffrey. Carbon monoxide detectors, she hopes, will be another.
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