National News

Carbon Monoxide Sickens VT Students

Posted August 19, 2007 7:44 p.m. EDT
Updated August 19, 2007 11:17 p.m. EDT

— A carbon monoxide leak at an off-campus apartment complex critically sickened two Virginia Tech students and sent 17 other people to hospitals Sunday, police said.

Five women, all students, were found unconscious in their beds in a unit at the Collegiate Suites complex, Capt. Bruce Bradbery said.

Two were taken to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, where they were in critical condition, he said. Their three roommates were taken to Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina.

The three women, all of whom are 19-year-old sophomores, were sent to Duke to be treated in its hyperbaric chamber, hospital officials said. Duke's chamber is one of a handful in the southeast that is large enough to handle more than one patient at a time.

Elizabeth Burgin, Carolyn Dorman and Nichole Howarth are concious and alert and were listed in stable condition Sunday night.

All three were placed in a hyperbaric chamber for two hours shortly after arriving at Duke early Sunday evening.

Hyperbaric chambers push pressurized oxygen into tissues and blood and are commonly used to treat carbon monoxide poisoning.

"I was speaking with them while they were in the chamber, and all three said that they felt stronger and more alert shortly after the chamber was fully pressurized," said Dr. Bret Stolp, M.D., Ph.D., a specialist in hyperbaric medicine at Duke. "These women benefited from excellent care and quick decision making at Blacksburg, which has given them the best possible chances for a full recovery."

Stopl said he will further evaluate the women's condition on Monday morning.

Fourteen more people were treated at hospitals and released, and a handful of others were treated on the scene, officials said.

A resident of a nearby apartment got sick and called the gas company, thinking there was a gas leak, Bradbery said. The employee realized it wasn't a gas leak and called police shortly after 11 a.m.

The gas company employee and a maintenance worker found the five women and pulled them onto a second-story breezeway.

Kristin Carr, a sophomore, said she and her three roommates left their ground-floor apartment after someone banged on the door to warn them. She saw women lying unconscious on the second-floor landing of the three-story, 12-apartment complex.

"That was definitely scary," she said.

Carr's boyfriend, Brett Hutcherson, a pre-med student, said there were not enough paramedics to care for everyone at first, so he helped check victims' vital signs and rolled the sick onto their sides to enable them to breathe more easily.

Bradbery said the cause of the leak appeared to be a faulty valve on the water heater in the women's four-bedroom apartment.

A phone listing for the complex on its Web site rang unanswered.

Readings taken by the Blacksburg Fire Department before noon showed carbon monoxide levels of 500 parts per million in the apartment shared by the five women, Bradbery said. People experience symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning at levels as low as 25 parts per million, he said.

Residents were being housed in a hotel overnight, Carr said.

The leak came the day Virginia Tech dedicated a memorial to the 32 people killed by a student gunman in April. Fall semester classes begin Monday.

Bradbery said he was at the dedication ceremony when he got the call about the injuries.

"Enough's enough," Bradbery said. "We've got four kids here who are just clinging to life."