Wednesday, January 15, 2014

North Carolina: Three Guests Die at Boone Best Western from Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

According to the UK's Daily Mail,  The carbon monoxide leak that killed three guests at the Boone, NC Best Western hotel has created state-wide regulatory action effective October 1, 2013 after two guests died from carbon monoxide poisoning in April 2013 and another in June 2013.

The Boone Best Western has removed the source of carbon monoxide that killed Daryl and Shirley Jenkins,  in April and 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams in June. The natural-gas-burning pool heater has been replaced with an electric heater that does not emit carbon monoxide.

On the heels of the tragedies, NC legislators crafted a law that requires hotels to install carbon monoxide detectors near fuel-burning appliances.

Additionally, The NC Restaurant and Lodging Association, whose members include about 200 hotels, motels and other lodging properties, worked with lawmakers to draft the law.

COMMENT: “Our members are aware of the requirements and have taken the necessary steps to comply,” said Lynn Minges, the association’s president. “I feel pretty confident that those who stay in our member properties should feel safe.

The law  mandates that hotels and other lodging establishments install the detectors in every enclosed space with a fossil-fuel-burning heater, appliance or fireplace and in every room that shares a wall, floor or ceiling with such spaces.

Complying with the new law isn’t difficult or expensive: Battery-operated or electric alarms cost less than $75. Lodging establishments are not required to connect alarms to their buildings’ electrical wiring until October 1, 2014.

Yet, in Mecklenburg, many hotels have been slow to follow the new law. As of early December, the Mecklenburg County Health Department found that 21 of the 31 buildings it inspected had failed to install alarms or had faulty or malfunctioning ones, according to Bill Hardister, environmental health director. County officials issued warnings giving the businesses 30 days to put in alarms.

In Boone, carbon monoxide detectors have been installed at the Best Western and other hotels previously run by Appalachian Hospitality Management, according to Paul Culpepper, an attorney representing the company.

Investigators found that the carbon monoxide seeped up from a corroded exhaust pipe at the Best Western into Room 225, where the three victims had been staying.

The man who led Appalachian Hospitality Management, Damon Mallatere, was charged Wednesday (January 15)  with three counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Five Boone hotels previously run by Appalachian Hospitality Management are now managed by a new company, Atlanta-based Hotel Equities, which took over on January 1. “We are very confident through our due diligence that the issues previously facing the hotel have been corrected as indicated by both state and federal regulators,” said Joe Reardon, Hotel Equities’ vice president of business development.

A grand jury also indicted Mallatere on one additional count of assault, inflicting serious bodily injury, on another hotel guest who was poisoned.

Investigators have determined that carbon monoxide from the swimming pool water heater seeped up from a corroded exhaust pipe into the room, killing Daryl and Shirley Jenkins, 73 and 72, respectively, of Washington state in April and 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams of York County in June. Jeffrey’s mother, Jeannie, also suffered serious injuries.

Mallatere formed Appalachian Hospitality Management in 2007 and managed hotels once owned by his late partner, Boone hotelier Ashok Patel. At the time of the deaths of the three guests, Mallatere ran the Best Western on US 421 and four other hotels in Boone. On January 1, Hotel Equities, an Atlanta-based company, took over.

The first deaths came on April 16. Daryl and Shirley Jenkins were visiting Boone from Longview, Wash., and died on their second night at the Best Western. Though there was no evidence of foul play, some authorities assumed they suffered heart attacks. 

Family members of the three decedents immediately suspected carbon monoxide poisoning. But firefighters at the scene said they did not test for carbon monoxide and did not find any obvious hazards in the room.

Dr. Brent Hall, the medical examiner, noted signs of heart disease during his autopsies of the Jenkinses, but not of carbon monoxide poisoning. Hall did ask the state to test the Jenkinses’ blood for carbon monoxide, among other toxins, but he did not ask that the tests be expedited.

It was not until June 1 that the state lab finally tested Shirley’s blood and found lethal levels of carbon monoxide. The lab said it emailed the results to Hall on June 3.

Four days later, before the results were made public, Jeannie and Jeffrey Williams checked into Room 225, which had recently been reopened to guests. Jeffrey died that night and Jeannie suffered debilitating injuries.

Hall has been faulted for not alerting the public to a potential health hazard. In June, he resigned his post as medical examiner for Watauga and surrounding counties, and has not spoken publicly about what had happened.

The Boone Fire Department was also criticized for not testing Room 225 for carbon dioxide after Daryl and Shirley Jenkins died, and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Raleigh for not completing toxicology tests sooner.

They said that the Williams and Jenkins families are more likely to prevail in civil lawsuits where the standard for negligence is lower. The families have up to two years to file wrongful death lawsuits. Possible targets include the hotel, Appalachian Management, the Best Western chain, Boone authorities as well as any person or company that worked on the swimming pool heating system. The Williams family also wants to hold the medical examiner system accountable.

The board also will consider disciplinary action against Dale Thomas Winkler, a licensed contractor who worked on the system. At a private conference last month, no resolution was reached in the case so it will now go before the full board in a public hearing. A date for the hearing has not been set.

As a precaution, those who often stay at hotels and motels on a regular basis should consider the purchase of a portable carbon monoxide detector, which can be purchased for roughly $130, money well-spent given the potential risk of death. 

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