Woman exposed to lethal gas dies

Four others overcome by carbon monoxide in Annapolis house

Car left running in garage

July 20, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

A 20-year-old Virginia woman staying at a friend's home in Annapolis died of carbon monoxide poisoning early yesterday after her friend's mother left a car running overnight in an attached garage, city police said.

Four others -- the woman's friend, Douglas Hickman Jr., 22, his sister Emily, 20, and their parents, Douglas Sr. and Ann, both 50, -- were sickened from the noxious fumes that filled the townhouse in the first block of Chesapeake Landing Way, said Annapolis police spokesman Officer Eric Crane. Paramedics rushed the family to Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore after the father called 911 just before 5 a.m. yesterday, Crane said. All were released by midafternoon.

Bryn E. Parry of Alexandria, Va., was taken to Anne Arundel Medical Center, where she died shortly after 6: 15 a.m., Crane said. Police and fire officials evacuated five adjacent townhouses in the Eastport waterfront community for almost three hours.

"This was purely an accident," Crane said. "There was no intent or anything like that. The case is closed."

Crane said Ann Hickman inadvertently left her 1999 Acura running in the ground-floor garage when she got home about 7: 30 p.m. Sunday.

Parry and Hickman Jr. -- friends who met at Colby College in Maine -- had visited Parry's grandparents in Rehoboth Beach during the weekend and arrived in Annapolis late Sunday night, said Virginia Luisada, a Parry family friend. Parry decided not to drive back to Virginia so late, she said.

She slept in the four-story home's family room, which is next to the garage. The Hickmans slept in rooms on the upper floors, Crane said.

"At about 4: 30, Mrs. Hickman got up and she was feeling dizzy, lightheaded and unsteady on her feet," Crane said. "She woke up her husband, went down into the kitchen and passed out. Her husband then comes down, too, calls 911 and then he passed out."

Capt. Leonard Clark, Annapolis Fire Department spokesman, said Hickman Jr. answered the door when firefighters arrived at 5: 03 a.m.

Hickman Jr. "let them in, but he was disoriented," Clark said. "He didn't have any idea what was going on. Firefighters told him to get outside and stay outside."

Firefighters used a hand-held detector to register a carbon monoxide level of 400 parts per million, far above the "acceptable level" of less than 9 parts per million, said Annapolis fire Lt. Douglas Remaley.

"Anything over 35 parts per million, we consider lethal," Remaley said.

Firefighters found Parry and the senior Hickmans unconscious, Clark said. Emily Hickman ran onto a balcony and shut the door, "which was fine, because she was getting fresh air."

While paramedics resuscitated and moved victims, firefighters and police officers evacuated neighboring townhouses, opened doors and windows and brought in fans to air out the buildings, Clark said. The evacuees were let back into their homes at 7: 30 a.m., he said.

The Hickmans and Parry's family could not be reached to comment.

"They are just grief-stricken," Luisada said. "She was a beautiful person inside and out -- someone the world could hardly afford to lose."

Luisada said Parry would have been a junior at Colby this fall, double-majoring in English and drama. She wanted to work in theater and made dean's list "all the time," said Luisada.

Residents of the Eastport community were stunned by the death in their neighborhood, said Preston Clark, 61, who lives next to the Hickmans and was evacuated. "There was some contamination in our house," said Clark, who bought a carbon monoxide detector after the incident. "It was scary. I had no idea carbon monoxide could travel through fire walls. Who knows what would have happened if [the Hickmans] hadn't woken up."

Remaley said carbon monoxide is especially dangerous because the gas is colorless and odorless.

"People don't know they're being affected," he said. "In this case, they were sleeping and it's only when you feel nauseous and sick when you realize, `Hey, we have a problem.' "

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include dizziness, nausea, vomiting and cherry-red skin, Remaley said.

Robert Rubin, professor emeritus of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, said carbon monoxide attaches to hemoglobins in blood and blocks the delivery of oxygen to body tissues, particularly the central nervous system.

Shock Trauma physicians placed the Hickmans in a hyperbaric chamber that pumps in oxygen at high pressure and forces the carbon monoxide molecules to detach from the hemoglobins, Rubin said.

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