A year after three people died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a Boone hotel room, their families support proposals before the N.C. General Assembly to require alarms in parts of hotels and other lodging establishments.
But they don’t believe the provisions go far enough. They want a carbon monoxide alarm in every guest room.
“Just like smoke alarms are in every room,” said Jeannie Williams of Rock Hill.
Her 11-year-old son, Jeffrey, died of carbon monoxide poisoning a year ago Sunday in Room 225 at the Best Western in Boone. Jeannie Williams suffered serious injuries. Since then, she takes a carbon monoxide alarm with her whenever she travels unless the hotel room is equipped with one.
After Jeffrey died, the public discovered he wasn’t the first person poisoned by carbon monoxide in Room 225. Nearly two months earlier, Daryl and Shirley Jenkins of Longview, Wash., were found dead in the same room.
The Jenkinses’ daughter, Kris Hauschildt, said lawmakers should ask themselves: “If they had the choice between staying in a hotel room with a carbon monoxide detector and one without, which would they choose? They are making decisions for the safety of all of us – their families included.”
In Huntersville, Lesley Somloi shares the concern. She said she hosted a Sweet 16 party for her daughter at a local hotel in 2009 and said they were poisoned by carbon monoxide. After the deaths in Boone four years later, she began lobbying lawmakers for alarms in every hotel room.
“What happened in Boone made me sick because, in my heart, I knew in some hotel near us people were going to die from carbon monoxide,” Somloi said. “The law is a start. It’s better than nothing, but you’re still not protected in hotels.”
Lynn Minges, president and chief executive officer of the N.C. Restaurant & Lodging Association, said local fire marshals and the Department of Insurance advised legislators that alarms are not necessary in every room to protect public safety. Minges, whose organization supports the limited provisions, made an analogy to her home – she has detectors, but not in every room.
Hauschildt and her brother immediately suspected carbon monoxide after their parents died on April 16, 2013. Yet investigators in Boone did not test the hotel room. The medical examiner suggested the deaths might have been due to a drug overdose or natural causes. Even after the state medical examiner’s lab pinpointed lethal concentrations of the gas, the results were not made public until after Jeffrey died June 8.
The source of the poison was eventually traced to a swimming pool water heater.
An Observer investigation found that hotel employees replaced an existing heater with a used heater without a permit or an inspection. A gas company later converted the heater from propane to natural gas. Despite warnings in an owner’s manual, the hotel did not install recommended carbon monoxide detectors near the heater.
After the deaths, an engineering company tested the heater and discovered abnormally high concentrations of carbon monoxide. The heater has been replaced with an electric heater that doesn’t emit carbon monoxide.
Legislators debate law
Within months, lawmakers enacted a requirement, effective Oct. 1, 2013, that hotels and other lodging establishments install detectors in every enclosed space with a fossil-fuel-burning heater, appliance or fireplace and in every room that shares a wall, floor or ceiling with such spaces.
Since the new requirement took effect, 44 of 102 hotels inspected in Mecklenburg County have been found to be in violation. Businesses have 30 days to put in alarms, which can cost less than $75.
This year, legislators want to broaden and clarify the law.
Under the new provisions, carbon monoxide alarms, not just detectors, would be required near heaters, appliances and fireplaces that burn combustion fuels. The requirement would apply to extended-stay tourist homes, bed-and-breakfast properties, as well as hotels and other lodgings.
The most significant change would put fire departments in charge of enforcing the law, rather than health departments.
Different versions of the new proposals have passed both legislative chambers. A final version is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory.
‘This horrible loss’
After the death of her parents, Hauschildt researched carbon monoxide poisonings in hotels. “They are not all related to a pool heater,” she said.
And this: neither should the law be.
“There are all kinds of different things that can happen,” she said. “It seems like you would have a law similar to what you have for residences, particularly for people who are going to sleep. When you’re asleep you don’t have a chance to do anything.”
Carbon monoxide is often called the silent killer. You can’t see or smell it.
Between 1989 and 2004, nearly 800 people suffered carbon monoxide poisoning at hotels, motels and resorts, according to Dr. Lindell Weaver of the University of Utah School of Medicine. Of the victims, 27 died.
Jeffrey’s family feels so passionately about the need for carbon monoxide alarms, they said they have worked with the South Carolina fire marshal’s office to have them installed in dorm rooms at the University of South Carolina.
“People’s homes, restaurants, college dormitories – anywhere there is an appliance that burns combustion fuels – there should be a carbon monoxide alarm,” Jennie Williams said.
The Williams family launched a foundation in Jeffrey’s honor ( jeffreysfoundation.org) to educate people about the dangers, to donate alarms to people and businesses, and to compile a database of hotels in the Carolinas, and eventually other states, that have carbon monoxide alarms in their guest rooms.
Their hope, Jeannie Williams said, is to prevent another family “from having this horrible loss.”
Staff writers Fred Clasen-Kelly, Jim Morrill and Gavin Off contributed