Boone Best Western Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Story

Last week we spoke of the “perfect storm” of Boone Best Western carbon monoxide tragedy which led up to the deaths of the Jenkins couple in room 225 on April 16, 2013. A story which included unlicensed workmen installing a pool heating system, a system modified in direct contradiction to manufacturer’s standards, hotel management who failed to understand the dire consequences of their failure to act and an unfortunate series of events which led inevitably to a tragic stay for the Jenkins.

You were also introduced to the account of hotel guests who held a child’s birthday party in the room above a few days later during which all fell ill with symptoms compatible with carbon monoxide poisoning. There was no alarm on the hotel staff’s part that the two events might indicate a serious health hazard and the incident was dismissed. Was the hotel’s response an indicator of an apathetic management or was it evidence of a policy of putting the bottom-line first? Or was it, in fact, the continuation of the perfect storm of events waiting to be played out until the next tragic events which occurred six weeks later?

In recent weeks, we have been blogging about the danger of carbon monoxide in hotels.

For last weeks blog about the dangers of pool heaters poisonings in hotels, click here. 

For the previous weeks blog about the dangers of hotel carbon monoxide poisonings, click here. 

Accountability for Deaths in Boone Best Western Carbon Monoxide Event

Recall if you will that Damon Mallatere had closed room 225 to guests for 5 weeks, reopening the room May 31st. Five weeks but not long enough to prevent an equally tragic third poisoning.

The local medical examiner, Dr. Brett Hall, had ordered toxicology tests at the request of local law enforcement detectives on the scene at the time of the discovery of the Jenkins’ bodies. An autopsy, dated April 18, 2013, lists the cause of death of Daryl Jenkins as ‘Carbon Monoxide toxicity’. Mallatere states he was informed on April 25, 2013 by one of the detectives that the cause of death was Natural Causes which the detective strongly denies. The detective recounts that he informed all parties at that time that toxicology results were pending.

Failure to Sound Alarm after Autopsy Findings of CO Poisoning

It is also believed that Dr. Hall received the results of the toxicology tests concluding that carbon monoxide was the cause of the two deaths on about June 1, 2013.

Why June when the autopsy is dated April 25th? Isn’t an autopsy that on its face says hotel and carbon monoxide poisoning enough for someone to raise the alarm?

An email dated June 3, 2013 states that carbon monoxide was the cause of Shirley Jenkins’ death. Dr. Hall claims he did not view these toxicology reports until June 9. 2013. Dr Hall was forced to resign following the events that ensued on June 8, 2013.

Following the Jenkins’ deaths Mallatere called on DJ’s Heating to perform an inspection of room 225 during which the fireplace was checked for gas leaks and no leaks were found.

If the logical source of CO is ruled out, is the answer to do nothing more, or to keep looking?

This is when it was noted that the alarm in place was not a CO detector and that the exhaust was not working. Robinson, one of the original installers was present during this inspection and is unsure whether he reported these findings to management or not.

Steven Thigpen, another maintenance worker, stated he knew the exhaust fan in Room 225 was not functioning due to extreme corrosion and claimed to have removed it. Later, when he was asked why it was still in place, he admitted that he had just disconnected it.

It seems everyone was aware that corrosion was an issue in the entire venting system. All maintenance workers acknowledge that corrosion was evident though not as extensive as the upcoming inspection would reveal. More thorough tests including smoke tests would not be performed until June 12, 2013 following the next event.

Boone Best Western Carbon Monoxide

The Police investigation timeline of the Boone Best Western carbon monoxide fatalities included this graphic of a towel holding up the ventilation pipe for the pool heater and an ice bucket to catch the condensation.

Corrosion, unless it is coming from the air conditioning condenser, is a dead giveaway of the potential for exhaust related problems in an HVAC system. When gases don’t get entirely vented into the outside air from a fuel burning appliance, the gases will condense, resulting in excess water (H2O) and acidic fluids. This combination will cause rust, even to galvanized pipes. When rust is seen on galvanized pipes, CO has to be suspected. That suspicion should never wait until after a CO poisoning event, but should be spotted and corrected as part of routine maintenance.

Room 225 Kills Again at Boone Best Western

Room 225 was reopened on May 31, 2013. Little to nothing had been done to address the pool heater housed in the pool room below or to thoroughly assess the vent pipes housed in the pool room ceiling, directly beneath room 225. Extensive corrosion is a major player in this tragedy. Corrosion had been observed by maintenance workers on site, but an overhaul of the venting system was not undertaken. Later, in court, the Jenkins’ daughter, Kris Hauschidt, would present evidence that the cost of repairs needed to replace the heater and ventilation system in that room were estimated at $4,341.74.

In the week since we posted our last blog, we got a Facebook comment that we were nothing more than ambulance chasers in focusing on this event in our blog. I am proud to be a personal injury attorney. I believe that what I do makes the world safer. Too often it isn’t until a lawsuit is filed, even though there was a clear carbon monoxide poisoning event, that corporate defendants take corrective action. One would hope that the threat of a lawsuit would motivate landlords and hotel operators to make their places safe. The risk of someone falling asleep and dying from CO poisoning overnight, should doubly motivate hotel operators to prevent this too common event. Yet, in case after case, if corrective action is taken after a 911 call, it is too little and too late.

On June 1, 2013 the room was rented to another couple. They did not fall ill to anyone’s knowledge. The room was not rented again until June 7, 2013.

On June 8, 2013 a 911 call came in regarding the apparent deaths of a mother and child. To listen to that call, click on last week’s blog, here. The child, 11-year old Jeffrey Williams, was found deceased in bed. His mother, Jeannie Williams, was discovered unconscious but still alive in the bathroom. The Fire Department tested the air in the room and found lethal levels of carbon monoxide and the hotel was evacuated. Jeannie Williams survived and suffered permanent brain damage.

Following this incident, a search warrant was issued and a hazmat team were called in to investigate. Their initial findings discovered carbon monoxide and possible toxic substances due to the pool chemicals stored in the area. But further testing revealed that toxicity was only present when the pool heater was in operation and it was producing a toxic level of CO. The levels were lethal in room 225, in both the air and from the air conditioning unit. Carbon monoxide levels were elevated in room 325. And carbon monoxide was detected in all inside and outside areas adjacent to the venting from the pool room.

At that time, around June 12th, additional smoke tests were done which revealed carbon monoxide entering room 225 from the air conditioning unit,  both through the system and around it, from the fireplace and its unsealed firewalls, and through the floor itself. When room 225 was closed, the bathroom exhaust, which ran continuously, created a vacuum effect drawing all CO into the room through many unsealed openings. The result was a lethal level of carbon monoxide that ultimately cost the lives of three guests.

It is disturbing that a hotel property located in a popular tourist area would consider cutting expenses by ignoring a faulty pool heater. Everyone seemed aware of the presence of corrosion and problems with the venting system. However, even after the deaths of the Jenkins, licensed professionals were not called in to do a thorough inspection of the system. Instead local handymen were tasked with the job of maintaining, and in many ways policing, a system they had incorrectly installed.

Just as disturbing is the apathetic approach to pending toxicology test results. The families involved were the only ones pushing for answers and trusting that proper urgency was being taken by officials. While, in fact, results which could have ultimately prevented an 11-year old’s death, a mother’s permanent brain damage, sat unopened and ignored.

In this perfect storm of errors and actions, even the courts had problems determining where to place the blame for the incidents that occurred in 2013. From faulty installation by unlicensed professionals. to passed inspections which did not take into account the fundamental guidelines for the heater system, to neglectful maintenance, to apathetic government agencies to untrained management. And let us not forget the owners of the hotel and the franchises themselves. The responsibility for these three deaths rests on many shoulders but is ultimately owned by those who put the bottom line above safety.

The attorneys in the criminal case came to a plea agreement that because of the number of people who had some share of accountability in the events that led to the tragic deaths in room 225, that no one individual would be tried for these deaths. It was agreed as part of a plea bargain that collectively Appalachian Hospitality Management should be held accountable. Appalachian Hospitality Management pleaded guilty to three counts of manslaughter. The judge ordered that the corporation be dissolved and Mallatere pleaded guilty on behalf of the corporation. Other players in the tragedy were also officially chastised including the medical examiner, the code inspectors and all who acted in a less than professional if not negligent manner. And hopes were expressed that all parties would voluntarily come forward to shed light on all the events which occurred. It was widely accepted that failure to act was present at every stage and those involved might have prevented the tragic deaths that followed.

The conviction, of course, resulted in no prison time for anyone involved in the perfect storm of events. However, it cleared the way for the families to file wrongful death lawsuits more far reaching in scope. Although nothing can erase the heartbreak of the losses suffered by both of the families, they are committed to preventing future tragedies in the hospitality industry.

North Carolina has since passed a law mandating CO detectors in hotel areas adjacent to any fuel burning devices.

Frankly, this law does not go far enough. The CO alarms need to be not just in such areas, but in all areas that the people are. The pathway of where CO goes once it is generated and escapes the proper ventilation is unpredictable and can include every occupied area of a hotel.

The families continue to advocate for federal regulations requiring CO detectors in every hotel and motel room in the United States.

As we increasingly find foreign interests involved in America’s hospitality industry, it is urgent to have both legal precedence and federal regulations in place to challenge a business model which cites bottom-line financial concerns as a free pass for negligence. Lack of management training, lack of licensed maintenance workers, lack of reaction and prevention are as much a part of the Boone Best Western carbon monoxide tragedy as the cast of characters. It is a business model which casts a dark cloud over the hospitality industry and fails to stand up to even the most basic scrutiny.

Lessons Learned from Boone Best Western Carbon Monoxide Tragedies?

The Boone Best Western carbon monoxide tragedy is a story of glaringly obvious shortcomings every step of the way. The carbon monoxide was not an invisible danger looming in a situation while those involved went unaware. Every part of this story revealed that the logical outcome of the actions of those involved would lead to a mishap. And when the initial deaths occurred, nothing was done to prevent it happening again. Not even the events which immediately followed in room 325 raised the alarm that perhaps there was a very serious problem that needed to be addressed. It remained business as usual until the Williams’ incident. And then the criminal investigations paved the way to a thorough examination of what had occurred the night of the Jenkins’ deaths as well.

It is sincerely hoped that continued advocacy for hotel safety bring about sweeping changes in the hospitality industry to prevent future tragedies.

Rebecca Martin contributed to this blog.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.