A start – but only that – on justice in Boone

The Observer editorial board

Jeannie Williams and her son, Jeffrey, were exposed to carbon monoxide at a Best Western in Boone in 2013.
Jeannie Williams and her son, Jeffrey, were exposed to carbon monoxide at a Best Western in Boone in 2013. File photo

A plea deal struck this week was aimed at providing some justice, closure and accountability in the senseless deaths of three people at a Best Western hotel in Boone. Unfortunately, this tragedy requires a lot more accountability than this deal provides.

Under the agreement, three manslaughter charges against Damon Mallatere, who managed the hotel, were dismissed. Instead, his former company, Appalachian Hospitality Management, pleaded guilty to the counts.

But the carbon-monoxide poisoning deaths of retired couple Daryl and Shirley Jenkins and, six weeks later, 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams, were unquestionably avoidable. And a number of individuals contributed to this horror beyond a now-dissolved management company. At the top of the list: Those who converted a pool heater improperly and the town of Boone inspectors who signed off on the work.

The Jenkinses were visiting cousins in Boone in April 2013 when they died in Room 225. Soon after, Jeffrey died in the same room and his mother was severely sickened. That the Jenkinses’ deaths did not sound enough alarms to avoid Jeffrey’s is unconscionable. That fact focused attention on the performance of the local medical examiner and the need for carbon monoxide detectors, among other things.

Not one of the deaths would have occurred, though, if the pool heater emitting the carbon monoxide had been installed correctly or if inspectors had not signed off on the shoddy work.

After the deaths, the N.C. legislature began requiring carbon monoxide detectors near hotels’ fuel-burning appliances. The families of the victims want the federal government to require detectors in every hotel room in the country.

A focus on detectors is fine, as far as it goes. But it treats the symptom, not the cause, and is effective only if the detectors are maintained, batteries changed regularly and so on. Better installation and inspections of machinery would go further to ensure such a tragedy is not repeated in North Carolina.

Workers for Independence Oil & Gas converted the hotel’s pool heater from propane to natural gas in 2012, even though the manufacturer’s installation instructions explicitly say not to perform such a conversion. A Boone inspector approved the work. A contractor said he checked the heater and found no problems. And a lawsuit claims that maintenance workers bypassed a safety switch rather than replace a broken power venter designed to draw carbon monoxide from the building.

It’s not clear if ineptitude or indifference is to blame in Boone. But either repeated shortcuts or ignorance led to the deaths of three people. Monday’s plea deal was only a beginning. Individuals still need to be held accountable, and every N.C. locality should ensure that its inspectors are adequately trained.

A relatively simple inspection done right would have saved three lives. Such a preventable tragedy must never happen again.