A state board has suspended the license of a contractor who did faulty work on a pool heater later found to be the source of leaking carbon monoxide that killed three guests at a Boone hotel.
The work was part of a string of errors that led to the deaths at the Boone Best Western. On April 16, 2013, Daryl and Shirley Jenkins died inside Room 225, which was located directly above the pool heater; 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams died inside the same hotel room 53 days later.
Thomas Daniel Miller, who worked for Independence Oil and LP/Gas, agreed to a one-year suspension of his license after a conference with the State Board of Examiners of Plumbing, Heating & Fire Sprinkler Contractors.
The board found that Miller converted the pool heater from propane to natural gas in violation of the manufacturer’s installation instructions. Miller also violated state standards, failed to properly supervise the work, and “created risk of personal injury or property damage,” the board found.
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The board previously suspended the license of another heating contractor – Dale Winkler of DJ’s Heating Services in Boone. The panel said he failed to recognize a number of problems when he was asked to check out the pool heater after the Jenkinses’ deaths. Winkler is appealing in Watauga Superior Court.
“There were so many people who didn’t do their jobs. That doesn’t make any of them less accountable,” Jeannie Williams said Wednesday. Her son, Jeffrey, died and she was seriously injured in Room 225 on a trip to pick up her daughter the next morning from a weeklong Christian youth camp.
The latest findings may help bolster the defense of Damon Mallatere, the hotel’s former manager, who faces three counts of manslaughter in the deaths.
To convict Mallatere, prosecutors must prove he acted carelessly or recklessly and with disregard for the consequences. His actions also must have been “the proximate cause” of the deaths.
Mallatere’s attorneys have said they would argue that negligence by others, including the two heating contractors, more directly caused the deaths than any negligence by Mallatere.
Dudley Witt, one of the attorneys, said that if the case goes to trial, he expects the Board of Examiners’ findings will help Mallatere.
“I believe that will weigh well for our client in any future matters related to this case,” he said.
‘So many people failed’
In October 2011, three maintenance workers replaced the Best Western’s existing pool water heater with a used heater from another hotel. They were not licensed to do the work and did not get a permit or ask for an inspection, in violation of the North Carolina building code. The Board of Examiners has prohibited all three from ever performing that type of work again.
The government’s criminal case against Mallatere rests largely on the replacement of that water heater. As president of Appalachian Hospitality Management, Mallatere managed the Best Western and five other Boone hotels and oversaw the maintenance workers.
The heater operated on propane. But as natural gas became more available in the Boone area, businesses and residences began switching to the cheaper fuel. In February 2012, several months after the used heater was installed, Mallatere hired Independence Oil & Gas to convert the water heater at the Best Western.
The contract specified that Independence would replace any appliance that could not be converted with new equipment designed for natural gas. That didn’t happen.
Miller, the suspended contractor who worked for Independence, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. He lost his license on Tuesday and, under an agreement with the state, will be able to get it restored in a year if he completes 22 hours of coursework.
Dale Dawson, executive director of the Board of Examiners, previously testified that the manufacturer’s installation instructions specifically state that the heater could not be converted. Independence did the conversion nevertheless. A town building inspector approved the conversion despite the warning.
Dawson said other problems likely dated back to the hotel’s original construction in 2000. He said the exhaust pipe from the swimming pool water heater, which was designed to carry carbon monoxide outdoors, was improperly installed. He said openings to the fireplace in Room 225 were not sealed with fire-stopping material, as required by state code.
Later, the exhaust pipe became so corroded, it had gaping holes. The damage to the pipes was likely caused over time by a chemical reaction with chlorine used to kill bacteria in the pool, Dawson said.
State medical examiners also played a role in the tragedy.
After the Jenkinses died, the local medical examiner who was charged with investigating their deaths didn’t go to the scene. He also didn’t alert the state toxicology lab in Raleigh about the mysterious circumstances – or ask that the tests be rushed.
It took the state nearly six weeks to determine that carbon monoxide killed the couple. Even then, no one warned the public. The next weekend, the poisonous gas leaked into Room 225 again, killing Jeffrey Williams and seriously injuring his mother, Jeannie.
“I’ve rarely been part of a case where so many people failed to do the right thing,” said Chad Poteat, a Columbia lawyer who is representing the Williams family. “… I’m still awed by the number of things that went wrong.” Staff writer Elizabeth Leland contributed.