Five Snowshoe employees overcome by carbon monoxide
Five Snowshoe employees were hospitalized after being overcome by deadly carbon monoxide (CO) gas at Seneca Lodge on Sunday morning.
Shavers Fork Fire and Rescue (SFFR) received a call about 9 a.m. that a female employee at Seneca Lodge was experiencing chest pains. While SFFR personnel were evacuating that patient, a Snowshoe public safety officer discovered another ill employee in a nearby stairwell, who quickly lost consciousness.
After the discovery of the second employee, SFFR duty officer Captain Jason Hall ordered Seneca Lodge evacuated. Shortly thereafter, the firefighters discovered an extremely high level of CO in the ground floor of the building, near an employee break room and storage area.
Firefighters soon found three more ill employees on the ground floor of the building. A total of five employees - two of whom were unresponsive when evacuated from the building - were transported to Pocahontas Memorial Hospital (PMH).
All five patients were listed in stable condition at PMH on Sunday evening. Two were released from PMH Monday morning. Two patients who were transported to a Charleston hospital and a third remaining at PMH were expected to be released Monday afternoon.
Cass EMS and Marlinton Fire and Rescue also responded to the scene.
SFFR fire chief Shannon Boehmer took command of the incident at about 10 a.m. on Sunday. Boehmer praised Hall's quick decision to evacuate the building.
"After we got to that second patient, that's when Captain Hall realized that we were having a bigger issue than just somebody having chest pains and that's when he decided to clear the building out, which saved a whole lot of lives, at that point," he said. "We had quite a bit of people in that building and luckily, they made that call very quickly and got those people out of the building."
Boehmer said the CO level on Seneca Lodge's ground floor was literally off the scale.
"Our highest levels, we actually got up to 999 parts per million - as high as our monitor will go," he said.
High levels of the gas never reached other parts of the building, according to the fire chief.
"In the rest of the structure itself, even up on the fourth floor, we never got levels higher than 50 parts per million, so it was really isolated to the basement area," he said.
Firefighters suspected one of the three boilers in the building was the source of the gas, but, with assistance from building maintenance personnel, discovered that a propane-fueled hot water heater was the real source.
Boehmer said the malfunction with the water heater is still being investigated.
"It could be anything from inside the hot water heater itself, a malfunction that's actually throwing CO back into the room, to somebody actually bumping into it or one of the exterior exhausts being knocked off," he said. We're not exactly sure, yet."
The fire chief singled out firefighters Hall, Coy Beverage, Randy Wilfong and Larry Holson for special praise.
"Those are the four individuals that were initially on-scene, after that first call, and then discovered the second call," he said. "Those are the four that really saved a lot of lives that day."
Sunday afternoon, Snowshoe Mountain communications director Laura Parquette praised the "extremely professional, well-trained staff at Shavers Fork."
"They've done a great job," she said. "A little more than three hours into the incident and the building is safe again."
CO is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas that is slightly lighter than air. The gas is produced whenever fuel such as gas, oil, kerosene, wood or charcoal is burned. If appliances that burn fuel are maintained and used properly, the amount of CO produced is usually not hazardous. However, if appliances are not working properly or are used incorrectly, dangerous levels of the gas can result.
A 1986 government study, with volunteer subjects, found that a concentration of 40 ppm for 60 days had no noticeable effects on healthy men. However, men exposed to 50 ppm for several days complained of headaches.
The U.S Consumer Product Safety Agency states that sustained exposure to carbon monoxide levels above 70 parts per million (ppm) can cause headache, fatigue and nausea. At concentrations of 150-200 ppm, the gas can cause disorientation, unconsciousness and death, according to the agency.
When carbon monoxide gets into the body, it combines with chemicals in the blood and stops oxygen from reaching cells, tissues and organs.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, an estimated 500 people die and 15,000 visit emergency rooms every year in the U.S. as a result of accidental CO poisoning caused by fuel-burning appliances. The agency estimates even more accidental deaths occur due to CO produced by idling cars.
Anything that increases respiration, such as exercise, high temperatures, high altitude and anemia increase the hazard associated with carbon monoxide exposure.
Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, confusion, disorientation and visual problems. Infants and the elderly are believed to be more susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning.
Boehmer strongly recommended that everybody install an inexpensive CO alarm in their home, as well as a smoke alarm.
"CO is a big killer, every year in the United States," he said. "It kills hundreds of people every year. If you just had a simple CO monitor, like you do your smoke detector, it's going to alert you at very low ppm, and that gives you plenty of time to evacuate any structure."
A national discount store advertises a combo pack with a smoke detector and CO detector for under $21.