Updated: CO blamed in hotel deaths
by Anna Oakes
A Boone Fire Department test June 8 found elevated carbon monoxide levels in Best Western room 225, where 11-year-old Jeffrey Lee Williams of Rock Hill, S.C., was found dead that day and Daryl and Shirley Jenkins, a couple in their 70s from Longview, Wash., died April 16. Williams' mother, 49-year-old Jeannie Williams, was also injured in the room June 8 and was in stable condition as of Monday.
The hotel was evacuated June 8 and remains closed while Boone Police continue their investigation.
The Appalachian District Health Department has served as a consulting agency in the investigation and held a 2 p.m. news conference Tuesday. Comments by department officials indicate the department did not know if ventilation issues at a Boone Best Western were corrected following a March 6 violation cited on a swimming pool inspection.
"We have not received additional follow-up from the hotel about the storage of chlorine and those types of chemicals," ADHD Director Beth Lovette said at the conference. Officials said the violation was a minor demerit that did not require departmental follow-up until the hotel's next semiannual pool inspection.
It is unclear if ventilation issues played a role in elevated carbon monoxide levels in Best Western room 225.
When asked if investigators have pinpointed the source of the carbon monoxide fumes, Sgt. Shane Robbins, public information officer for the Boone Police Department, said the investigation is ongoing.
"There are not any theories that I can comment on," he said.
Robbins said room 225 is a suite-type room that is located above the pool.
The March 6 citation by health inspector Lori Durham included a two-point demerit related to the storage of equipment and chemicals, 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 Best Western had also been cited for violations related to equipment and chemical storage and ventilation following past health inspections, according to health department documents. Inspections on April 28, 2009, and Aug. 24, 2009, indicated a chlorinator was leaking.
But health department officials said Tuesday they wanted to "clarify" the department's role as a public health department in inspecting public swimming pools.
Lovette said the March 6 violation "relates to ventilation of equipment rooms to provide worker safety only for handling pool chemicals in a semiconfined space. Ventilation of combustible gases from any appliances is not a part of the public health department's public pools inspections."
Lovette said ventilation of combustible gases would fall under the purview of the North Carolina Mechanical Code, which is enforced by local planning and inspections departments. The Watauga Democrat has requested copies of town building inspections at Best Western.
Lovette said it was a coincidence that Durham was on-site at the hotel for a sanitation inspection at the time of the April 16 emergency response, where she administered CPR to Daryl Jenkins. When asked if Durham connected the April 16 incident to the March 6 violations, she said, "That to me would be pure speculation. Ms. Durham is not in the room."
Robbins said that to his knowledge, "the health department was not consulted about the April 16 incident."
Robbins did not respond to a question asking why the health department was not consulted in April.
He said the 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.
Fire Chief Jimmy Isaacs said this weekend's circumstances were also different because the fire department's truck with carbon monoxide monitoring equipment happened to be very close by and was able to respond to the scene.
"Because of the circumstances, it was beneficial to have that there," he said.
But the family of Daryl and Shirley Jenkins challenged the 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.
Officials said Watauga Medical Center regional pathologist Dr. Brent Hall was the medical examiner who gathered preliminary autopsy information for the April 16 and June 8 deaths. A call to Hall was transferred to the hospital system's corporate communications department.
"Dr. Hall's office has indicated that since the investigation is ongoing, they won't be making any statements and that all press information will be released by the Boone Police Department since they're the lead agency in the investigation," said Gillian Baker, vice president for corporate communications at Appalachian Regional Healthcare System.
Neither police nor fire officials directed the Best Western to close the hotel room or rooms after the April incident.
"My understanding is they did keep the room closed for a period; I don't know what the period was," Robbins said.
The hotel is operated by Appalachian Hospitality Associates. Calls to the business were not answered.
CORRECTION: This story originally contained the wrong information that a birthday party with as many as 10 attending girls had been hosted in Room 225 on April 19. Recent police investigation has shown that this is not correct. The birthday party was hosted in Room 325 on April 19. This story has been updated to reflect this new information.