Carbon monoxide blamed in hotel deaths
by Anna Oakes
Police announced their findings at a news conference held at 5:30 p.m. Monday, where they also released recordings of the 911 calls from both incidents.
Just before 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Boone police and fire department personnel and Watauga Medics were called to Room 225 of Best Western Blue Ridge Plaza in reference to a medical emergency report indicating that two persons were in distress, according to BPD.
Upon responders' arrival, Jeffrey Lee Williams, 11, of Rock Hill, S.C., was determined dead.
"Preliminary indications are that he died from asphyxia," Boone Police Chief Dana Crawford said. The boy's mother, 49-year-old Jeannie Williams, was taken by ambulance to Watauga Medical Center for treatment. A Watauga Medical Center official confirmed Monday that Jeannie Williams is in stable condition.
"During the emergency medical response, a presumptive test indicated an elevated level of carbon monoxide in the room," Boone Police Chief Dana Crawford said. "The hotel was evacuated and assistance was requested from North Carolina Emergency Management and the North Carolina Public Health Preparedness and Response Branch."
Investigators discovered that this is the same location and room where Daryl Dean Jenkins, 73, and Shirley M. Jenkins, 72, of Longview, Wash., died April 16. Crawford said results from a toxicological analysis received within the last 24 hours indicate carbon monoxide toxicity was the cause of death in that incident as well.
Boone Police Public Information Officer Sgt. Shane Robbins said medical examiner's initial findings in April, including a history of coronary disease and medications, led investigators to believe the April deaths were not suspicious.
"While it was unusual for two people to die like that, it definitely was not unheard of," Robbins said.
However, Robbins said, the cause of death was listed as undetermined pending the results of state toxicology results, which police said they received within the past 24 hours. Police had requested the results on May 29 but were told at that time they were unavailable, Crawford said.
Robbins said the June 8 incident was different because regional pathologist Brent Hall was able to determine from preliminary tests that Jeffrey Williams died from asphyxia.
But the family of Daryl and Shirley Jenkins challenged police's conclusion in April. A statement released via family attorney Mark S. Brumbaugh Monday said, "Daryl (73) and Shirley (72) were in good health and were extremely active. There was absolutely no reason to believe they would simultaneously pass away from natural causes.
"It is simply inconceivable that the hotel would choose to rent the same room to others while toxicology results were pending related to the deaths of Daryl and Shirley," the statement said.
Robbins said he was not aware that any officials directed the Best Western to close the hotel room or rooms following the April incident.
"My understanding is they did keep the room closed for a period; I don't know what the period was," he said.
The Appalachian District Health Department on Monday released a statement noting it is participating in the investigation as a consulting agency. However, no health department officials were present at the news conference.
A March 6 inspection report by the Appalachian District Health Department cited ventilation issues at the hotel, stating, "Chemical/Equipment room is required to have natural cross ventilation or forced air ventilation. This needs to be corrected ASAP. Consult inspector prior to making any installations."
The report also cited several other violations, including one deemed critical: "noted pH in pool was 6.8 upon initial inspection and then was raised to 7.2 during inspection. Monitor PH closely." It is not clear at this time if any violations are related to the April and June deaths.
In response to reporters' questions about the report, Boone Fire Chief Jimmy Isaacs said he was not aware if anyone followed up to ensure the violations were corrected. Multiple messages left with health department officials were not returned on Monday.
Isaacs said North Carolina law does not require carbon monoxide alarms in commercial properties such as hotels though they are required for single-family and two-family residential properties.
Crawford said the department has not received reports of any others who stayed at the hotel experiencing symptoms of carbon monoxide toxicity. Robbins said officials do not believe there is any danger to others who have stayed at the Best Western, noting that the human body can eliminate carbon monoxide "once you're out in the environment."
A woman who called 911 on June 8 told the responder that a woman and child were unconscious and without a pulse in Best Western room 225.
"I need help down here please," the woman said, upset. "You don't understand -- we just went through this."
The 911 caller reporting the April incident said two people were found unconscious and not breathing; she indicated that one patient was in a hot tub in the room.
The North Carolina State Board of Examiners of Plumbing, Heating and Fire Sprinkler Contractors will have investigators in Boone on Wednesday to aid in the investigation. Police continue to work at the Best Western, located at 840 E. King St., to determine the sequence of events and cause of the medical emergencies. The business remains closed.
"We have been able to determine that there is no danger to the general public," a release stated Sunday.
Watauga County GIS records indicate the property is owned by AJD Investments Inc. The hotel is among several hotel businesses of the family of the late Ashok Patel, according to remarks Patel made at a December 2012 Boone Town Council meeting. Patel died in January.
A call to the Best Western Sunday was forwarded to the Country Inn and Suites. A hotel manager said the hotel group has no comment at this time. A call to Appalachian Hospitality Management -- which manages operations at the Best Western -- was not answered Monday.
Scott Davis is senior pastor of Northside Baptist Church in Rock Hill, S.C., where the Williamses attend church.
"Much like a biological family, a faith family is anguished when something happens to one of its members. We are heartbroken for the Williams family in the midst of this tragedy," Davis said. "They are a much beloved and very active family within the life of our congregation. Our greatest prayers are that God will grant them gospel peace in the midst of their loss, strength for recovery and for the days ahead and wisdom for the doctors and authorities as they go about their important work."
Check back for continuing updates on this developing story.
Executive Editor Tom Mayer contributed reporting to this story.