DA’s Office Contacted, Criminal Investigation Into Three Deaths in Room 225 of Best Western in Boone Begins

Published Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 8:12 pm
Hotel Press 1

Boone Fire Chief Jimmy Isaacs (left) looks on as Boone Police Chief Dana Crawford reads a prepared statement about the deficient exhaust system for the pool’s water heater. Photo by Jesse Wood

Jesse Wood

June 12, 2013. Local, state and federal investigators confirmed that a deficient exhaust system for the pool water heater at the Best Western in Boone led to the deaths of three lodgers who stayed in Room 225 during the past three months.

Room 225 is situated above the pool’s mechanical room that houses the water heater. It wasn’t the only room to have elevated carbon monoxide levels, but Room 225 had significantly higher levels that anywhere else in the hotel. 

Investigators with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the N.C. State Board of Examiners of Plumbing, Heating and Fire Sprinkler Contractors spent the day with local investigators conducting inspections and tests at the Best Western across from New Market Center.

At 5:30 p.m., Boone Fire Chief Jimmy Isaacs and Boone Police Chief Dana Crawford held a press conference to announce findings and answer questions from the media.

Isaacs said they found multiple avenues of exhaust entering Room 225 from inside and outside of the hotel during examination of the exhaust system that include a smoke tests.

The Best Western is currently closed as investigations continue. Photo by Ken Ketchie

The Best Western is currently closed as investigations continue. Photo by Ken Ketchie

“We actually discovered a couple of avenues during testing today. One of the avenues was coming from inside the building. With reference to penetration through the floor that was coming through the building from a concealed space above the ceiling and making its way through a void up into the gas fire place area,” Isaacs said. “The other area … the vent was in close proximity to the HVAC unit. There again with wind direction lined up with exhaust coming back into the building through there.”

Along with multiple deficiencies, Isaacs added that the venting system has corrosion issues that were exacerbated by lack of maintenance and by being nearby a pool that, in itself, is “inherently corrosive.”

“A lot of this is going to come done to lack of maintenance. One thing you need to understand is pool areas are inherently corrosive because we have chlorine in areas. Chlorine is a very strong oxidizer; it accelerates the corrosion process in these areas,” Isaacs said. “That’s one of the things, when we have a piece of equipment subject to corrosion, it’s going to require more maintenance and much more intensive work to keep it maintained.”

During the past two days since this story made national and international headlines, Isaacs said his phone “has rung off the hook” with people sharing “remarkably similar” stories of this happening in their community – Huntersville; Allentown, Penn.; and International Falls, Minn.

As for the March 6 annual inspection of the pool by the Appalachian District Health Department, whereby a health inspector noted a violation for lack of air ventilation pertaining to pool chemicals – which had nothing to with the deadly levels of carbon monoxide – in the mechanical room, Isaacs said more ventilation where pool chemicals were stored wouldn’t have made a difference in what was a tragic outcome. Monitoring of combustible gases and exhaust systems also doesn’t fall within the jurisdiction of public health departments. 

The cause of death in all three instances was determined to be carbon monoxide toxicity.

A Time To Make Alarms In NC Hotels A Priority?

In the state of North Carolina, hotels are not required to have carbon monoxide alarms, which cost as little as $15, to detect the odorless and invisible gas often called the “silent killer.”

According to an analysis of the lack of carbon monoxide detectors in hotels in a November 2012 article in the USA Today, “Few of the roughly 4.9 million rooms in 51,214 lodging properties with at least 15 rooms have alarms.”  

This is partly due to successful lobbying on the behalf of the hotel industry. Tom Daly, a consultant for the American Hotel & Lodging Association, told the USA Today that there is no need for laws requiring hotels to have alarms because the incidents are so rare.

“You have a better chance of being struck by lightning than being hit with CO poisoning, Daly said several months ago.

But Isaacs said that the recent deaths at the Best Western are a “prime example” why North Carolina should move in the direction that California recently has in terms of state laws requiring carbon monoxide detectors in hotels.

“I think one of the things we can walk away from this is carbon monoxide needs to be a priority,” Isaacs said. “Through a hole in the [state] building code, it is not required.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

In response to a question of whether the hotel or any agencies involved have violated any local, state or federal laws, Isaacs said, “We don’t have that information right now.”

He added that main question for today’s press conference was “How this happened?” 

Police Chief Crawford said that his department has been in contact with the families of the deceased but hadn’t yet talked to them today about the new findings. He noted that there were many more interviews to be conducted and “tons” of records to retrieve during the continuing investigation.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us. We have to be patient. We want to be right in anything we do. No one wants a conclusion more than we do,” Crawford said. “But just like any criminal investigation, it takes time. It takes patience. We want to be thorough.”

He said it is “way to early in the process” to determine that a crime has been committed, yet the “potential is there.”

He also said that he has already been in contact with the District Attorney’s Office.

Tax records recorded with the Watauga County Register of Deeds list the hotel as being owned by AJD Investments. Recent documents filed with the Appalachian District Health Department list the owner/operator as Appalachian Hospitality Management.

Both AJD Investments and Appalachian Hospitality Management have been unreachable since Saturday, June 8, when the investigation into the death of Jeffrey Williams, 11, of Rock Hill, S.C., led to the discovery that Daryl and Shirley Jenkins, both of Longview, Wash., and both in their early 70’s, also died of carbon monoxide poisoning in Room 225 on April 16.

Watauga County Pathologist Dr. Brent Hall reported to authorities that his office performed autopsies on the Jenkinses on April 17 and 18. Those results were inconclusive, and samples were sent to the N.C. Office of Chief Medical Examiner.

While Crawford said his department re-requested the results from the state on May 29, it wasn’t until a couple days after Williams passed away that the toxicological results arrived.

Crawford nor Isaacs could answer if the hotel room was closed to the public at any time since those April deaths.  

Doug Jenkins, the son of Daryl and Shirley, expressed outrage to the Charlotte Observer that Best Western continued to rent out Room 225 before toxicological results were released. 

“Do you know how mad I am right now?” Jenkins asked. “Why are they still renting out this room?”

As of right now, the hotel remains closed as investigations continue. The N.C. State Board of Examiners of Plumbing, Heating, and Fire Sprinkler Contractors is continuing its investigation and assessment of the incident, while Isaacs said the fire departments role in the investigation is finished. 

Investigators ask that anyone who stayed in Room 225 to contact the Boone Police Department at 828-268-6900 or email Sgt. Matt Stevens at matt.stevens@townofboone.net.

Click here to read several articles published since Saturday about the carbon monoxide deaths at Room 225 in the Best Western. 

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