Posted: Monday, June 17, 2013 12:00 am
Updated: 5:14 am, Mon Jun 17, 2013

Three recent carbon monoxide deaths at a Boone hotel are only the latest cases in which the lethal gas has poisoned N.C. hotel guests.

In early April, nine days before two people died in Boone, two Charlotte residents staying at a Holiday Inn in Winston-Salem suffered for hours before they were hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning.

And in 2008, eight guests at a Super 8 Motel in Raleigh were treated for carbon monoxide poisoning after a water heater malfunctioned, the Charlotte Observer reported.

Before the recent deaths, at least eight hotel guests nationwide had died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the past three years, according to a January investigation by USA Today. More than 170 people have undergone treatment.

Some N.C. lawmakers now say it’s time to study whether the state should require hotels to install carbon monoxide alarms – devices that typically cost about $30.

“When you consider the potential loss of life, it’s something we should seriously consider and evaluate,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham. “… It’s certainly a problem that is much bigger and broader than I realized.”

‘I don’t remember anything’

Linda Newkirk questions whether she’d be alive today if it weren’t for a ringing cell phone.

She had fallen asleep in her room at the Holiday Inn on University Parkway in Winston-Salem April 7, when the phone on her chest rang. Across the second-floor hotel room, Newkirk’s friend, Yolanda McGraw, laid passed out on the bed.

Neither of the two women realized they were slowly being poisoned by carbon monoxide.

Newkirk and McGraw, both 61 and former Charlotte-Mecklenburg teachers, arrived at the Holiday Inn on April 5 to attend a sorority conference in Winston-Salem. Both became sick the following day, a Saturday. Newkirk complained of light-headedness. McGraw had a headache and felt nauseated. She skipped several hours of the conference to nap in her hotel room. “I hadn’t been nauseous like that in 30 years,” McGraw said. “I thought it was some kind of virus.”

Their symptoms intensified Sunday morning. The two had no energy to pack their luggage, let alone drive themselves back to Charlotte.
Just before passing out in a hotel chair, Newkirk called her niece, who lives in the area, and said the two needed help. She laid the cell phone on her chest. Neither heard Newkirk’s niece knocking on the door a bit later. But her phone call woke Newkirk up.

They called 9-1-1. An ambulance took McGraw to Novant Forsyth Medical Center, while Newkirk followed with her niece. Both had carbon monoxide poisoning, doctors found. “I don’t remember anything except when I woke up in the hospital,” McGraw said.

Firefighters who responded to the medical call tested the hotel air and found “high CO readings” on the second floor, according to a report by the Winston-Salem fire department. “Fire unit located the source and hotel … shut down the water heaters,” the report said. Firefighters evacuated the building and helped ventilate it.

The hotel’s general manager, Michael Bonasia, said the hotel considers “the safety and security of our guests to be of the utmost importance.” He declined to comment further. Newkirk and McGraw were treated with oxygen before being transferred to Duke Medical Center, where they spent hours in a hyperbaric chamber, a device used to help carbon monoxide victims breathe. Since the scare, Newkirk and McGraw have hired a Charlotte attorney and have reached out to state legislators, asking why carbon monoxide alarms aren’t required in hotel rooms.

McGraw said in an interview Sunday that until this incident, she was unaware of the potential risk of carbon monoxide in a setting such as a hotel. “My biggest concern had been bedbugs,” she said. “In the last couple of years, you had just heard about hotels and bedbugs.”

Hundreds of deaths

The recent deaths at the Best Western Plus Blue Ridge Plaza in Boone have focused attention on carbon monoxide issue, as well as breakdowns in the state’s system of death investigations. On April 16, two of the hotel’s guests – Daryl Dean Jenkins, 73, and Shirley Mae Jenkins, 72, both of Longview, Wash. – were found dead in their room. Autopsies found they died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

On June 8, 11-year-old Jeffrey Lee Williams of Rock Hill died in the same hotel room, also from exposure to carbon monoxide. Authorities believe the poisonous gas came from an improperly installed pool heater below their room.

Often called “the silent killer,” carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that inhibits the blood’s ability to carry oxygen and can cause severe illness or death in minutes. It’s emitted by cars and other fuel-burning machines and appliances. Carbon monoxide has killed some 400 people in North Carolina since 2001, including 39 in Mecklenburg County, an Observer analysis of state death certificate data found. More than half of North Carolina’s carbon monoxide deaths were accidental, data show. A state expert said many of those deaths were caused by generators, indoor grills and cars parked inside garages.

North Carolina is among 27 states that require carbon monoxide alarms in new homes. But like most states, it does not require such detectors in hotels. California is an exception; it requires carbon monoxide alarms in hotels and other dwelling units with fuel-burning appliances. Last year, the International Building Code did impose such a requirement. The board that adopts North Carolina’s building codes often follows the lead of the International Code Council.

N.C. Rep Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, said it may be time for building rules requiring that hotels be equipped with carbon monoxide alarms.  Carney, who has previously introduced legislation to require carbon monoxide detectors in apartment buildings. said it’s too late in the current legislative session to introduce new bills. But she said she’ll try to get her proposal into an omnibus study bill – a move that will require the approval of House Speaker Thom Tillis and Rules Committee chairman Tim Moore.

Jordan Shaw, a spokesman for Tillis, said Friday that the speaker has not yet had a chance to consider the issue. McGraw has no doubt that the carbon monoxide alarms should be required. “A tragedy shouldn’t have to happen before we do something, but unfortunately that’s what happens,” she said. She said she felt very sad when she heard about the deaths in Boone. “I felt that the deaths were senseless tragedies,” she said. “It seems the welfare and safety of people who stay in hotels ought to be the lodging industry’s first priority.” She also feels extremely lucky to be alive. “I feel very blessed,” she said. “I feel very blessed.”

Journal reporter Jennifer Young contributed to this story.