Open oven determined to be culprit in carbon monoxide poisoning

City code inspector says oven was source of gas that killed two, injured three others

December 29, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

Occupants of a Baltimore rowhouse where carbon monoxide gas is believed to have killed two people Tuesday had turned on a gas oven and left the door open, spreading lethal fumes through their second-floor apartment, according to the city's chief code inspector. The position of the oven has led officials to speculate that the occupants might have been using it as a heat source.

City officials said someone covered the bottom of the oven with aluminum foil, blocking air vents and causing the gas to build up and then seep out. It was then swept up through a heating duct in a hallway ceiling and delivered by the ventilation system to virtually every room.

Eric Booker, assistant commissioner for code enforcement for the Department of Housing and Community Development, said Wednesday that the three-story rowhouse in the 1700 block of Guilford Ave. had no carbon monoxide detector, despite a law that took effect in March requiring homes to have one.

But given the amount of gas and its speed spreading through the house, Booker said, "even if there had been a detector in the hallway, it might not have gone off before we had fatalities."

Firefighters who arrived at the house a few minutes after 11 a.m. Tuesday found two adults dead and three others — two men and a child — unconscious on the second and third floors. The Baltimore Fire Department identified the dead as Mikeia Lucas, 30, and Vonita Gibbs, 40.

In an interview Wednesday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she is concerned that some residential buildings still lack carbon monoxide detectors.

She added, "It concerns me that people are using their ovens for heat. … If people are having difficulties, there may be ways we can help. But you have to reach out. Otherwise, you're just playing Russian roulette every night that you're jury-rigging your stove or bootlegging electricity from the outside."

The mayor's spokesman said local business owners have approached the city about a program to help people obtain carbon monoxide detectors, similar to a fund through which the Fire Department provides free smoke detectors to anyone who asks. Officials cautioned that carbon monoxide detectors are far more expensive.

In a separate incident Wednesday, eight people were taken to area hospitals for evaluation for possible carbon monoxide exposure at a Pigtown rowhome.

Officials with the Baltimore Firefighters Union Local 734 said the people were evacuated from a three-story house in the 800 block of Washington Blvd. at about 5 p.m. Fire Department spokesman Kevin Cartwright confirmed that the home was evacuated as a precaution for a possible carbon monoxide leak, but that none of the victims suffered any serious or life-threatening illness.

John Potvin, who owns Equity Management, the property manager for the Guilford Avenue rowhouse, said his workers installed detectors in buildings that the company owns around Baltimore — which includes more than 1,100 apartments. But he was not sure whether the Guilford Avenue property got one.

Reached after Booker confirmed that the house did not have a detector, and told that the owner would be cited with a code violation, Potvin said he will make sure one is installed as soon as occupants are allowed back into the dwelling. Booker said inspectors would give him 10 days to install a detector before leveling fines that could reach $500 a day.

Potvin said Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. crews inspected the house Tuesday and found that the gas furnace and new gas water heater were functioning properly and were not the sources of the deadly fumes, which are odorless and colorless.

"We are as perplexed as anyone else," Potvin said of the incident's cause.

City officials said they don't know why the occupants had the oven on and its door open. Booker, the city's code enforcement chief, said the electricity and gas were operational.

Booker said the stove had been placed up against the wall of a kitchen near a hallway entrance. "If the oven door is open and emitting carbon monoxide, it goes into the return vent and gets sucked into the heating system and recirculates through the rest of the house," Booker said.

And putting the aluminum foil on the bottom of the oven made a dangerous situation worse. He said that when inspectors "peeled back the foil, the carbon monoxide reading went off the charts."

Fire officials said they got readings as high as 500 parts per million; 35 parts per million requires the use of masks and breathing apparatus. "These are extremely lethal levels, and we are very fortunate that more lives weren't claimed," said Donald W. Heinbuch, who was acting fire chief on Tuesday.

Booker said the rowhouse is divided into two apartments, one on the first floor and one on the second and third floors. He said the dead victims were found on the second floor, one lying on a bed in a bedroom. He said there was blood on a pillow next to that victim, which might account for homicide detectives being called to the scene Tuesday.

Police confirmed that a small pool of blood was found but said it was determined to be a side-effect of the poisoning.

The house is owned by Greater Baltimore AHC Inc., which has developed hundreds of units of low-income and Section 8 housing in Baltimore. It owns more than a dozen rowhouses on Guilford Avenue that have been converted into 70 apartments.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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