Heater fumes put 9 people in hospital Faulty kerosene unit emits carbon monoxide in apartments

'I couldn't breathe'

Boy, 12, woke up to odor at 4 a.m.

neighbors awakened

January 13, 1997|By Ronnie Greene | Ronnie Greene,SUN STAFF

Nine Carroll County residents were hospitalized yesterday after a faulty -- and apparently illegal -- kerosene space heater sent carbon monoxide wafting through their apartment building, leaving some gasping for breath, authorities said.

One of the nine was a woman with a history of asthma, who was flown to Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

Operating a kerosene heater in commercial structures or buildings with three or more apartments is illegal. Fire officials said they found a soot-splattered heater in the Union Bridge apartment yesterday, apparently installed to keep pipes from freezing.

Citing the health hazard and apparent violation of the law, the state fire marshal's office is investigating whether criminal charges should be brought against the owner of the building at 10 N. Main St.

"We certainly believe it did violate the law," said Bob Thomas, deputy chief state fire marshal.

"Had the heater continued to run and run improperly, we could have had the potential for nine deaths," Thomas said. "That would have been just a tragedy of the largest magnitude."

Had it not been for a 12-year-old boy who awoke about 4 a.m. to the smell of something burning, the situation could have been worse. The boy woke his parents who, unable to trace the origin of the smoke, dialed 911.

There was no fire, but officials traced fumes and heavy smoke to the kerosene heater.

"We think this could have led to a very serious problem, perhaps even fatalities, had the youngster not awakened to the odor," Thomas said.

He said eight residents were taken to Carroll County General Hospital for treatment.

By yesterday evening, all had been released.

Sandra Kline, the woman treated at Shock Trauma, said she was awakened about 4 a.m. by a neighbor knocking on her door.

"There was smoke everywhere. We thought everything was on fire," Kline said last night, after being released from the hospital. "I was very dizzy, gasping air. I couldn't breathe."

Kline said she plans to move out of the building. "I am very disgusted at the situation," she said, complaining of pressure in her chest and dizziness when she stands. "I will not go back to that apartment any more."

Thomas said possible charges include reckless endangerment and violating the state fire code -- operating and maintaining a fire hazard through use of the portable unvented kerosene space heater in a commercial building.

The fire code violation carries maximum penalties of a $1,000 fine and 10 days in jail, according to Thomas, who was uncertain of the punishment for the more serious offense.

"We would have to meet with [the state's] attorney to determine whether the state wanted to pursue charges," Thomas said. "We think they are warranted."

Thomas said the building's owner, Dean Pennington of Union Bridge, was out of town yesterday and unavailable to be questioned.

Thomas said kerosene heaters are intended to be used in one room only, not to heat an entire house or building. "They should never be left operating unattended, without somebody watching or maintaining a vigilant watch over them," he said. "That's to make sure they don't malfunction, they don't catch fire or flare up and cause the types of problems that we experienced this morning."

Pub Date: 1/13/97

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