It was Halloween night, and Cherell Owens had just taken her almost 2-year-old son, Pryce Day, trick-or-treating. A few hours later, she was in a panic.
“We were all sleeping, and my little boy had woken up. And his crying just wasn’t what I had been used to,” Owens said. “It kind of told me that something was wrong.”
She and her boyfriend, Derick Day, rushed to their son’s room and noticed his breathing also was abnormal. By then, both of them also were feeling sick. As they began preparing to take their son to the hospital, Derick collapsed on the floor.
Owens said she had no idea what was happening, but felt an instinct to get her child out of the house. She also called 911 and went back inside to help her boyfriend and pet cat outside.
Those instincts — and the quick assistance from emergency responders — might have saved the family's lives, as they were told they were suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning after arriving at the hospital in their hometown of WaKeeney.
All three were immediately given oxygen, and while Pryce suffered a small seizure as a result of the fumes, there are not expected to be any long-term health effects, she said.
Owens is thankful her family’s story had a happy ending. But not all victims of carbon monoxide poisoning are so fortunate.
Two Hays residents were killed by accidental carbon monoxide poisoning last week — the city’s first such reported fatalities since 2007.
Officials in northwest Kansas are urging residents to take precautions to help prevent further injuries.
The WaKeeney area was pounded by a huge hailstorm in August, causing damage to the natural gas vents on many homes, including Owens’, said Mike Morley, director of corporate communications at Midwest Energy.
Residents in any area that has been hit by damaging storms should look at their roof to ensure the vent cap is not smashed or flattened. A quick check can be done from the ground, Morley said.
If the flue cap is damaged, residents are encouraged to cease using natural gas appliances and should immediately contact an HVAC or roofing contractor for a repair, which typically isn’t expensive if only the cap needs replaced, he said.
“We have storms all the time that bring down tree limbs and things like that,” Morley said. “If a tree limb happens to smack your gas exhaust vents and seals them off, that can be fatal.
“And if it happens in the summer, you might not use your furnace for three months, so you think everything’s fine until you turn it on — and then you’re not.”
The damage in WaKeeney was extensive, as the town experienced baseball-size hail. Morley said many damaged flue pipes were visible when driving around town earlier this fall. Emergency officials have been working for months to educate Trego County residents about the dangers resulting from the hail storm damage.
“People just need to be sure and check (exhaust vents) after this hail storm. This is the message we put out to them,” said Kathleen Fabrizius, emergency management director for Trego County. “You don’t realize how bad they are until you get up and see them. It’s something you don’t think about, but it’s very important.”
Precautions also should be taken if your natural gas vent is located on the side of your home instead of the roof. This vent cannot be obstructed, and all objects should be a minimum of 3 feet away. If items are placed too close, a heavy snowfall could cause drifting that would block ventilation and have the same dangerous effect, Morley said.
It’s also dangerous to use gas and portable generators inside, which likely contributed to the incident in Hays last week, Hays Police Chief Don Scheibler said.
“Gas and portable generators produce dangerous gas,” Scheibler previously told the HDN. “Never use them indoors, and make sure they are at least 20 feet away from doors and windows.”
It’s also advisable to have your home’s furnace inspected annually, and authorities are urging all residents to purchase a carbon monoxide detector, which costs less than $20 and alerts residents if the poisonous gas is present inside the home.
“If you’ve got a gas furnace or a gas stove or anything that’s a natural gas appliance in your home, you need to have a carbon monoxide detector,” Morley said. “It’s just cheap insurance.”
Residents who already have carbon monoxide alarms should check them regularly to be sure they are in working condition.
Because carbon monoxide is colorless and odorless, it is nearly impossible to detect before those affected begin showing symptoms of poisoning.
Early signs of poisoning resemble common flu or viral symptoms, which also can make it difficult to identify the problem, he said. Symptoms include dizziness, weakness, headaches and nausea. More prolonged exposure can result in vomiting, burning eyes, disorientation, partial loss of muscular control and sleepiness.
Those experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms should immediately get all family members and pets to fresh air and call 911.
“If it’s one person in the house that has (those symptoms) and everyone else feels fine, then they’ve probably got the flu,” Morley said. “But if you’ve got five people that suddenly start feeling ill, there could be carbon monoxide in the house. And again, that carbon monoxide detector will tell you that.”