Propane possible boat peril One sailor died, another sickened while in shower

May 28, 1992|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer Staff writer Lorraine Mirabella contributed to this report.

ANNAPOLIS -- One local sailor died and another was hospitalized after being overcome by carbon monoxide fumes while taking showers on boats recently, prompting a national marine organization to investigate.

The American Boat and Yacht Council, a Mayo-based consumer protection group, plans to take a closer look at propane water heaters in the wake of the accidents, which have rocked Annapolis' sailing community.

While the accidents may have been coincidental, an official with the 38-year-old council said, they could signify the need for redesign or additional safety features, perhaps as simple as a warning label.

In mid-April, 35-year-old Catherine Hartman, whose family has been in the marine business for years, fell unconscious in a shower while the boat was nearing the end of a trip from Florida to Annapolis. Crew members rushed her to the Patuxent Naval Air Station Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

An autopsy found she died of cardiac arrest.

Investigators with the Maryland Department of the Environment took air samples that afternoon, April 12, in the shower area. They found dangerous levels of carbon monoxide when the heater was on with its vent closed, a spokesman said.

Last week, Robin Wase, a 19-year-old student, fainted while taking a shower on a 50-foot catamaran docked at Bert Jabin's Yacht Yard in Eastport. She was rescued when several people heard her moaning. The student at St. John's College was treated at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

Both women inhaled carbon monoxide, a deadly colorless and odorless gas, in showers operated with propane heaters manufactured by the same company, according to interviews with police, relatives and the boat owners.

Wolter Systems Inc., a Cincinnati-based company, makes a stainless steel, top-of-the-line heater that was installed in the boats on which the accidents occurred.

"This is like a bad dream," company founder and President Gerry Wolter said yesterday. "We've been in the market since 1984 and always prided ourselves that we design the safest heater. I'm terribly upset. I don't know if it's the installation or operator error or what."

Instruction booklets warn that the units should be mounted outside the shower, unless a vent or flue pipe is installed to allow fumes to escape, Mr. Wolter said. "We tell people in no uncertain terms they have to have a flue."

Operator fault may have caused both of the accidents, according to those interviewed. The vent was accidentally closed early May 20 when Miss Wase was taking a shower, said William M. Mathers, president of Pacific Sea Resources Inc. and owner of the catamaran on which Miss Wase was a guest.

But William Steitz, who hired Ms. Hartman to manage his sloop when he bought it a year ago, insists that the heater vent was open. Maryland Natural Resources Police still are investigating the circumstances of her death about 2 1/2 miles off Cedar Point.

State environmental investigators concluded in a preliminary on-site report that carbon monoxide combined with the loss of oxygen in the boat's sealed bathroom area "could have contributed to the incident," and have recommended more tests.

The American Boat and Yacht Council began studying propane heaters last year with their rise in popularity, said Tom Hale, the council's technical director.

A committee that recently wrote a comprehensive report on carbon monoxide poisoning will take a closer look at propane ventilation next month.

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