A/c and Heating Ran While Six Died in NY

May 29, 2000
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MINEOLA, NY — New rules requiring carbon monoxide (CO) alarms in new residential construction, as well as all hotels and motels, are being drafted in Nassau County after six people were found dead of CO poisoning May 7 in a doctor’s house in Roslyn Heights.

A lack of knowledge about the correct operation of the heating and air conditioning systems appears to have been the main contributing factor.

Dr. Andrei Kranz, a Roslyn Heights resident, returned to his home Sunday, May 7, after working the night shift. He found his two-year-old daughter, her nanny, his parents, and two elderly guests dead. Both the air conditioner and furnace were operating.

Vents Were Blocked

Authorities later determined that the outside air vents of the air conditioner were blocked, in one instance by debris and in the other by some sort of cover, apparently to prevent cold air drafts during the heat-ing season.

Occupants of the house, unfamiliar with the units and not knowing that the vents were blocked, apparently turned on the air conditioning as outside temperatures rose, not realizing the furnace was still set to operate as well.

The air conditioner thermostat was set at 70°F and the furnace thermostat, right beside it, was set at 74°, according to Stephen Wenk, Nassau County Assistant Chief Fire Marshall.

Insufficient oxygen for the furnace helped create the CO, he explained, and the air conditioner’s operation created a downdraft that sucked the gas into the living space, where all six victims were gathered.

Dr. Kranz had a CO alarm in his home, but he told police he had turned it off because it was sounding off repeatedly and he thought it was malfunctioning.

New Rules

Nassau County Executive Thomas S. Gulotta announced on May 16 that he is recommending a new ordinance requiring installation of CO detectors in newly built homes, as well as in all hotels and motels.

The Nassau County Health Department began immediately “to develop an appropriate program,” The News was told by its public information officer, Cynthia Brown.

Just a day after the Kranz family tragedy, four members of the Ketofsky family of Kendall Park, NJ, awoke to the beep of an alarm. Hal Ketofsky had completely forgotten he’d installed a CO alarm two years ago outside his master bedroom. When he located the source of the beep, the display on his Kidde Nighthawk alarm read 330 ppm. He called 911 and emergency crews responded.

South Brunswick Fire Safety Deputy Fire Marshall Neil Raciti found an even higher reading, 400 ppm, in the home’s basement and said death would have been certain if the family had slept through the night.

The family (two adults and two children) was given oxygen for an hour, and all continued to feel the effects of CO poisoning the next day. Ketofsky wrote e-mails to everyone in his address book, telling them, “A $50 device made the difference between my being able to write this note and my entire family being killed last night by carbon monoxide.”

In the Long Island home, the air conditioner and the furnace occupied the same utility room, and each had its own air-handling unit. In the New Jersey home, the air conditioner had been turned on for the first time and was causing a negative pressure in the furnace room, pulling combustion gases down the chimney and spreading them throughout the house.

Off-Season Awareness

The Nassau County Fire Marshall’s office launched a barrage of public service announcements on local radio and TV for two days following the deaths. Consumers responded quickly by purchasing more than the usual amount of CO alarms, even though the deaths occurred at the start of the cooling season, not in autumn (when CO awareness usually peaks).

Kidde marketing communications manager Mike Baron said regional sales of CO alarms always go up when deaths such as those in the Kranz home occur, but national awareness of the dangers of CO and the need for alarms increases dramatically as well.

Baron cited a 1998 study by the Iowa State University Carbon Monoxide Center which asserts that cases of “medical misdiagnosis and heating technician failure abound.” The ISU center recommends yearly servicing by “qualified heating contractors” and service by “qualified technicians.”

He recalled a recent incident elsewhere in New York State, where a heating contractor had made two unsuccessful attempts to fix a CO problem, which was finally remedied by relining the chimney.

The Long Island deaths made national news and also were featured on NBC’s Dateline program the following week. Baron said that Kidde’s news monitoring normally nets about half a page of CO mentions on TV in the U.S., but after the Long Island deaths, that zoomed to 36 pages.

He noted that, judging from his company’s survey of smoke detectors, many carbon monoxide alarms might not be operating properly, often because of dead batteries or failure to test the units at frequent intervals. In one-third of homes equipped with smoke alarms where fires have occurred, the alarm was inoperable, Baron said.

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