Carbon Monoxide Incidents Not Isolated in Hotel Poisonings

There is nothing isolated about carbon monoxide incidents in hotels and resorts. Poor maintenance and failure to install CO alarms in all rooms predict that these deaths and injuries will continue to happen.

By Rebecca Martin

A faulty gas-powered refrigerator was the suspected cause of death for a newlywed Scottish couple vacationing in a rural property in Majorca, Spain this past May. 40-year-old Jaime Corsi was found deceased next to his unconscious 39-year-old partner, Mary Somerville. An autopsy of Jaime Corsi confirmed that carbon monoxide was the cause of death. Despite being hospitalized, Mary Somerville succumbed to her injuries this past July. She passed away in hospice care in a hospital in Edinburgh. What had begun as a romantic vacation ended in tragedy.

In May of 2022, in a three American tourists were found deceased at a Sandals resort in the Bahamas in a carbon monoxide incident. Michael Phillips, 68, Robbie Phillips, 65, and Vincent Chiarelli, 64, had succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. Chiarelli’s wife, Donnis, 65, was airlifted to a hospital in Florida and initially listed as in critical condition.

carbon monoxide incident

Carbon monoxide incidents are not isolated in the hospitality industry, as deferred maintenance and inadequate capital replacement budgets result in great risk to travelers.

Conflicting stories emerged regarding the source of the carbon monoxide incident that took three lives in two separate rooms in the same building at the resort. The Royal Bahamas Police Force initially stated the deaths were due to carbon monoxide poisoning. Authorities would eventually speculate that this incident occurred separately from the air conditioning system while other guests in residence at the time stated that the air conditioning was not functioning correctly during this time and had been under repair.

All of the deceased and injured guests had been seen by medical personnel the night before the incident and been sent back to the resort with a diagnosis of possible food poisoning.

There was some speculation that freon, the gas used by air conditioning systems could have been the culprit even though police had announced the cause of death as being carbon monoxide poisoning. Freon poisoning presents in ways that differ from carbon monoxide poisoning and would not be likely to be confused with food poisoning at the emergency room. Among those symptoms are swelling and pain in the throat, nose and sinuses, a burning sensation in the eyes, nose, ear, lips or tongue, loss of vision, indigestion, and vomiting. Carbon monoxide symptoms are far more in line with flu or food poisoning symptoms having a less specific nature than freon poisoning. The tourist’s complaints had been of nausea and vomiting.

However, a spokesman for the police later denied that they had confirmed that carbon monoxide was the cause of death and that investigations were ongoing, prompting Sandals to release the following statement:

“Despite initial speculation, Bahamian authorities have concluded the cause was an isolated incident in one standalone structure that housed two individual guest rooms and was in no way linked to the resort’s air conditioning system, food and beverage service, landscaping services or foul play,” the company said.

As a result of this incident, Sandals Resorts installed carbon monoxide alarms at the resort and promised in a statement to install CO alarms at all of its resorts in the Caribbean, stating that they were enacting this effort in spite of there being no legal requirement in place for them to do so.

Isolated HVAC Appliances can Cause Carbon Monoxide Incidents

Attributing the carbon monoxide to an isolated incident is all kinds of short sighted spin. CO is more likely to strike a few isolated rooms in a hotel than all of the rooms, because it is the rooms that are in the pathway of the fumes that are most likely to be effected. This is especially true when the source of the CO is not an integral part of the hotel’s HVAC system, but a pool heater or some other out of the way fuel burning appliance. It is the isolation of these appliances that from the main hotel systems that results in the neglect to these systems.

One could argue that then carbon monoxide alarms only need to be in rooms in the pathway of such escaped fumes, but often there is no way to predict where such pathway might be as there is no way to pinpoint in advance the point of failure of an appliances exhaust pathways.

Hotel Industry Slow to Accept Responsibility

In general, the initial statements on the behalf of resorts downplay their liability and are more focused on damage control and shielding the reputation of the resort from a negative perception from the public. These statements are often released before investigations are complete or in many cases, have not really begun.

Would voluntary installation of carbon monoxide detectors have saved lives in all of these carbon monoxide incidents? Undoubtedly.

But not if the carbon monoxide detectors were disabled which appears to be the case in the instance of the Hyatt’s Rancho de Pescadero.

When two bodies were found in a hotel room at Rancho Pescadero Hotel, a familiar chain of events unfolded. The Orange County couple had also sought medical attention for what was diagnosed as the symptoms of food poisoning. John Heathco, 41, and Abby Lutz, 28, returned to their room and were discovered deceased in their room by housekeeping. Heathco was found in the shower and Lutz was found in the bed area. Family members recall receiving a phone call stating that both had died peacefully in their sleep.

In the following days and weeks, information surfaced citing continuing gas leaks and past complaints of carbon monoxide detectors alarming and being disconnected as a result. Staff members reported numerous complaints regarding possible gas leaks which were disregarded by management.

Carbon Monoxide Ambient Air Levels Must be Tested Promptly

Hyatt said in a statement on June 16 that Mexican “authorities immediately tested the air quality in the room after responding to the situation, and at the time, did not report any findings of gas or carbon monoxide and advised that the hotel was cleared to continue normal operations.”

This in spite of reports of first responders who found it necessary to seek medical treatment upon falling ill at the scene.

One area of continued advocacy in the carbon monoxide advocacy community is that all first responders have personal protector CO alarms on their persons. It is probable that in Mexico, such devices are not routinely used.

Inaction ultimately led to a walk out by the hotel workers who demanded safer working conditions amongst other demands. The hotel eventually closed its doors in June until investigations are completed and the hotel could be deemed safe for occupancy again.

Meanwhile the recent deaths were attributed to “intoxication by substance to be determined.”

In view of the facts: the couple sought medical care for nausea and vomiting, hotel staff reported numerous gas leaks and purposeful disabling of co detectors, first responders fell ill at the scene and were treated for carbon monoxide exposure and the time of death occurring sometime midmorning while the couple was preparing for their day, misdirected statements should not be persuasive.

What always seems to be missing in these stories is a clear and concise statement regarding the cause of death, the source of the toxic substance and what was done to fix the problem.  Vague statements seem to be the means to the end in stories involving the hospitality industry, especially when dealing with locations outside of the country. The next story comes along and all that remains are the words “the investigation is continuing”. No one has admitted cause, no one has admitted fault. The families of the victims are left with the task of filing litigation in order to uncover the answers. The words “rare and isolated incident” seems to be the only phrase which continues to appease the public.

What this means to the consumer is that travelling without personal carbon monoxide detectors is a crap shoot. If the resorts don’t respond to the dangers then it is left to the consumer to once again arm itself and we can only hope that every traveler has received that message loud and clear.

We personally recommend that travelers carry a Low CO alarm with a digital readout that starts to indicated the presence of CO before it gets to 20 ppm. It is the best way to make sure that your life is not impacted by the next isolated carbon monoxide incident.

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