After Years Of Worry, Unseen Peril Persists

Owner Made Repairs, But Alarms Continue At Troubled Essex Complex

Sun Watchdog Investigation

Carbon Monoxide At Cove Village

November 15, 2009|By Robert Little and Nick Madigan | Robert Little and Nick Madigan,robert.little@baltsun.com and Nick.Madigan@baltsun.com

More than four years after Norman Wiley and his two stepdaughters died of carbon monoxide poisoning in their Cove Village townhouse, life in the hard-edged Essex complex is still haunted by the deadly, invisible gas.

The carbon monoxide alarms continue, despite scores of inspections and repairs aimed at eradicating the deadly threat. Since the Wiley family deaths in July 2005, emergency crews have responded to more than 180 carbon monoxide-related calls in Cove Village, according to county records, earning the 299-home rental community a dubious reputation among firefighters and building code enforcers.

More than 90 times they detected levels high enough to recommend that the homes be evacuated, according to reports from the Baltimore County Fire Department. And nine times they found carbon monoxide levels deemed potentially lethal. At least 26 Cove Village residents have been treated at local hospitals for exposure, including 12 last summer.

James Holley, who lives on Barnacle Court, equates life in his Cove Village home to "living on top of a time bomb."

"I don't even sleep upstairs anymore," he said. "I sleep downstairs, closer to the door."

Sawyer Realty Holdings LLC, the College Park-based landlord that owns and manages Cove Village, has worked to fix the problem and calm residents, installing carbon monoxide detectors after the deaths four years ago and responding with a flurry of inspections and repairs each time another dangerous reading is reported.

Last year, the company began an intensive effort to find a solution, ultimately installing hundreds of new appliances, ductwork, flues and other improvements costing more than $670,000, Sawyer officials said. In June, as the alarms continued, county officials threatened to shut the complex down within two weeks, then backed off when Sawyer began yet another round of communitywide inspections and repairs.

"We've tried to do everything we could, and everything we were asked to do, to resolve this issue - and not just with Band-Aids, with real solutions," said Gary J. Gianino, Sawyer's chief operating officer. "We're a responsible landlord. And when we find an issue, we address that issue."

Still, a Baltimore Sun investigation reveals that nearly all of the potential carbon monoxide hazards identified at Cove Village over the past year were first discovered years earlier by a carbon monoxide expert, investigating for Wiley's wife, who explained his findings in detail to Sawyer employees. And one potential threat he found still exists in some Cove Village homes.

Among The Sun's findings:

* Sawyer officials told residents in June that they discovered potential threats at Cove Village during a "comprehensive investigation" in late summer 2008, yet the Wiley family's forensic investigator says he briefed Sawyer employees about those problems as early as September 2005.

* Several Cove Village homes visited recently by The Sun contained the same furnace-installation flaw that the investigator blamed in part for the Wiley family deaths. The flaw, which can allow the heating and cooling system to pump carbon monoxide throughout the house, has been mitigated by other improvements Sawyer made, but Baltimore County officials say the furnaces would violate local and national building codes if installed that way today.

* A short ventilation pipe on the Wileys' roof - identical to most in the complex - was identified by the investigator as a possible source of deadly backdrafts, but Sawyer began installing extensions on the pipes only last summer.

* Records from the Baltimore County Fire Department show a pattern of carbon monoxide-related calls and elevated readings at Cove Village every summer since the deaths in 2005, but county officials did not call for comprehensive inspections until residents of three houses were hospitalized this summer.

In a recent interview with The Sun, Gianino said Sawyer's approach at Cove Village has always been to attack potential safety problems aggressively and without regard to cost - a characterization of the company's responsiveness that is shared by Fire Department and county officials who have worked closely on the problems.

Asked in the interview why the company did not act immediately to fix all the problems uncovered in 2005, Gianino and Sawyer Vice President Thomas Rucker initially said they were unaware of the investigators' report.

Two weeks later, they released a statement saying that the investigator's findings were motivated by the prospect of winning a legal judgment rather than protecting residents. "Sawyer Realty is not going to respond to a document created by an out-of-state consultant-for-hire, whose primary purpose was to help [a] law firm pursue its lawsuit," the statement said.

In fact, most of the findings detailed in the report have been validated over the past year by Sawyer's own investigations.

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