Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on May 1, 2019.

Room 225

Since her parents were found dead in a North Carolina hotel room, Kris Hauschildt has worked to expose the hidden dangers of carbon monoxide


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In the six years since the sudden deaths of her parents, Kris Hauschildt has had a painful stream of “what ifs” playing over and over in her mind. What if hotels were required to have carbon monoxide (CO) detection? What if her parents had known to carry a portable CO detector? What if authorities had acted faster to find the problem?

NFPA Conference Sessions
NFPA Conference & Expo, San Antonio, TX, June 17-20, 2019

Case Studies in Hotel Carbon Monoxide Poisonings: How Safe Is Your Hotel Room?
Tuesday, June 18, 3:45–4:45 p.m.

Kris Hauschildt, Jenkins Foundation

“It’s been an awful thing to live through,” she told NFPA Journal in a recent interview. “Coming to terms with it, and everything I’ve found out since, has been really overwhelming.”

On April 14, 2013, Hauschildt’s parents, Daryl and Shirley Jenkins of Longview, Washington, checked into room 225 at the Best Western hotel in Boone, North Carolina. On the morning of April 16, Daryl, 73, and Shirley, 72—high school sweethearts married 53 years—were found unconscious inside their hotel room. Both were later pronounced dead.

Investigators found no signs of foul play or obvious hazards. Nor did they test the room for carbon monoxide or other possible environmental culprits. Over the next two days, a medical examiner performed autopsies and took blood samples, but it would be more than 50 days before the tests were analyzed and carbon monoxide poisoning was identified as the cause of their deaths. In the meantime, room 225 was reopened—and the unthinkable happened again.

On June 7, 2013, Jeannie Williams and her 11-year-old son Jeffrey checked into room 225 for an overnight pit stop before picking up Jeffrey’s older sister the following morning from a youth camp. Early the next afternoon, a housekeeper found Jeffrey dead on the bed. Jeannie was on the bathroom floor, near death. She ultimately survived, but suffered permanent brain injury and other physical injuries.

This time investigators were more thorough. Directly below room 225, hidden by a drop ceiling, they discovered a pipe designed to carry exhaust from a pool heater safely to the outside. The pipe was severely corroded, and gaping holes allowed clouds of carbon monoxide to waft directly into the room above. High levels of CO can kill by reducing a person’s ability to absorb oxygen, eventually leading to a loss of consciousness and death, similar to suffocation. After discovering the corroded pipe, investigators let the pool heater run for about a half hour, then tested CO levels in room 225. The levels were high enough to kill a person if exposed long enough.

In the years since, Hauschildt has tried to come to grips with her loss by learning more about the CO hazard in hotels in order to prevent others from dying. When she found that no federal agency tracks these specific incidents, she decided to do it herself. She scoured Internet news archives and research studies back to the 1960s to find at least a rough estimate of how often CO-related hotel incidents happen, and what trends might be gleaned. To date, the spreadsheet she keeps has 335 incidents involving CO in US hotels since 1967, amounting to 157 deaths and 2,231 injuries. The actual number of cases is likely much higher, she said.

“When you look at what happened to my parents, their deaths didn't even make the news—it only was in the paper after the Williams incident happened,” she said. “Since the Centers for Disease Control doesn't even track this information—none of the safety agencies do—it's impossible to have an accurate list.”

As part of her mission, Hauschildt has also studied CO detector requirements across the US, and has become a staunch advocate for making the devices mandatory in hotel rooms nationwide. She has become involved with both NFPA 720, Standard for the Installation of Carbon Monoxide (CO) Detection and Warning Equipment—now integrated into the 2019 edition of NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®—and NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, and recently launched the Jenkins Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to sharing CO information with the public. The foundation recently worked with local fire departments in her home state of Washington to make CO education a part of Fire Prevention Week in schools.

Outside of Best Western hotel in Boone, North Carolina, where three people died and one was seriously injured in carbon monoxide incidents in 2013.

The Best Western hotel in Boone, North Carolina, where three people died and one was seriously injured in carbon monoxide incidents in 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

Hauschildt will share her story and the troubling facts about CO incidents in hotels during an education session at the upcoming NFPA Conference & Expo in San Antonio. She recently spoke to NFPA Journal about the lessons her research has revealed on the causes and trends of hotel CO incidents, and what can be done to eliminate the hazard.

Did you always suspect carbon monoxide as the cause of your parents’ deaths?

My mom worked for a natural gas company for 30 years, so carbon monoxide is a topic that wasn’t foreign to us. We've heard about the dangers of it. Often, she would remind us of the importance of having alarms. So it was a strange idea to think that they could have died of a carbon monoxide-related event, but it was one of the first things that came to mind when we found out that they were in their hotel room and that nobody had caused them harm.

What has driven you to devote so much energy to researching CO deaths and injuries in hotels?

It’s really all been the result of a simple effort to wrap my head around what happened at that hotel—not just to my parents, but also to the Williams family. I needed to research all the different pieces of it in order to make sense of it.

Where did you start?

I started with this kind of microscopic view of the incident itself and just what happened in that room. I found that there was no CO detection in the room, or any rooms in the entire hotel. Then I found that the state of North Carolina didn't have a law requiring it. I thought that was crazy. Who would think that a hotel wasn't required to have CO detection, especially since you're sleeping there? Looking further, I discovered that only 14 states have any legislation requiring CO alarms in hotels. So this could have easily happened in 36 other states.

Of those states with CO laws, most only require detection in new construction, or only in hotels with fuel-burning appliances. It is rare to find a requirement that covers an entire hotel building, where you have coverage in every room. It's just this real haphazard mix of requirements in the limited places they exist. The more information I found, the more I just kept being shocked.

What was most shocking?

We definitely underestimated the level of misinformation and ignorance about carbon monoxide that’s out there. You tend to think about the people who die of carbon monoxide not being informed, but before this happened I had no appreciation for the fact that ignorance exists on many levels and throughout many professions, even those that most people might think would be experts. After my parents died, we were really pushing for an investigation into the air quality of the room, and there was a reluctance by the investigators to do that. To them, it seemed more likely that my parents both died of heart attacks. It was very eye opening.

I was also shocked by how many of these hotel carbon monoxide incidents there are, and how these incidents seem to all play out the same way. Since my parents died six years ago, there have been 92 incidents, six deaths, and 377 injuries from carbon monoxide poisoning in hotels. What happened in North Carolina is really not unusual in the world of hotel CO cases.

You said that the 335 incidents you’ve found is likely the minimum number of actual cases. Why are these incidents so difficult to track?

In hotels without CO detection, I’ve found that it often takes more than one person dying or injured in a hotel before anyone even recognizes there's a problem because the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can be so many different things. People also tend to think of carbon monoxide poisoning as being this rare event, so first responders usually think of all these other things that are more likely to have happened first. In my parents’ case, the investigators thought it was more likely that they both died of heart attacks. There are incidents on my spreadsheet where the authorities first believed it was a drug overdose, or that the person died of natural causes, or that they had food poisoning. There are documented studies in the medical community showing that even doctors have a hard time recognizing carbon monoxide poisoning.

What do you mean when you say these incidents seem to all play out the same way? What is it about hotels that makes them especially dangerous or susceptible to CO poisoning?

Hotels pose a unique threat for CO because you're sort of lulled into a false sense of security. They advertise themselves as being your home away home, taking care of all of your needs. For hotel guests to recognize that a headache, or feeling sick to their stomach, might be the result of carbon monoxide is a connection most people would have a hard time making, even at home. On top of that, you're traveling, you're eating foods that are different, so if you have an upset stomach you’re more likely to think you ate something bad. The whole environment isn't conducive to recognizing you may be in danger.

I can understand why a lot of guests might not make that connection, especially since they’re mostly sequestered in their rooms and have no way of knowing if there are others in the building who are suffering from the same symptoms. But what about hotel staff?

As a guest, your line of communication is with the front desk, which most of the time is staffed with people who aren’t trained to recognize a CO danger. Even if multiple people are complaining of sickness, the hotel staff often won’t put it together that there is a bigger problem going on. When I travel, I ask hotel staff whether the hotel has carbon monoxide detection, and they generally don't know. If I ask questions at a front desk, they usually refer me to a maintenance person who may or may not know the answer, or isn't there.

From your research and in talking with people, what's your sense of the level of carbon monoxide protection in hotels generally?

The hotel industry is not particularly forthcoming with that information, and there's no transparency in the current system to allow you to even make an educated decision on whether you stay in a safe place. At least on Airbnb you have the option of selecting a place that has carbon monoxide detection because they offer it as a search option. You don't have that ability when you reserve a hotel room; you don't get to pick your safety amenities. I think many people just assume it's already there. There's a lot of blind leading the blind out there.

It's too bad because it would be such a great public awareness for people if hotels did advertise their safety amenities rather than hiding them. What a great thing if hotels said, “Your safety is important to us and here are the things that we have in place to ensure your safety.” It would put carbon monoxide in front of people on a more regular basis, thereby increasing public awareness. It could be a win-win situation.

The simple fix you advocate is to require CO detectors in every hotel room. Despite all of these incidents, why haven’t things changed?

One problem is, when these events happen, it's localized and the response is localized. The lessons seem to stay within that town or that state; there doesn’t seem to be a broader thought process for the fact that hotels are in every state. How about we share this information so that everybody could be on board doing the same thing rather than waiting for people to die in each state?

Another problem is that, in the fallout in these cases, everybody tends to pick out their own portion of it. The people who deal with gas appliances look at components, the building inspectors tend to look at the building code piece of it. There's really nobody looking at it from a consumer standpoint, a voice that will say, “Hey, to prevent people dying and suffering permanent injury, we need to give people an early heads-up to get out of the building.” And because there is no data collection, we don’t really know how many people are suffering injury and death as a result of this, and there's nothing to base any action on. It's kind of a Catch-22.

How did you become involved with NFPA?

I became aware of NFPA when I was researching which states have CO laws and trying to understand more about that. I found a lot of references to NFPA 720, so I ordered that code book so I could read about it, and found out about the code revision process and entered into that process. Then I learned about the Life Safety Code and how it determines what types of buildings are required to have alarm systems. Then I became an NFPA member. I wanted to find out things and be a contributing part of that process in whatever way I could.

How have you been involved so far?

I was at the NFPA conference in Las Vegas last year, where I kind of schlepped around my spreadsheet and put it in front of whoever was willing to look at it, in an effort to find out where I could talk to someone about this. I started there and learned more about the process, and eventually entered public input into NFPA 101 to change the code so that CO detection is required for existing hotels in the same way the code requires it in newly built hotels. I later attended a meeting in Minneapolis to present in front of the 101 committee about my input. The committee did approve my input during the first public input stage and it is in the first draft of the 2021 document.

What do you want attendees to take away from your upcoming C&E presentation?

I just want to give people the whole picture so they have a better understanding of what is going on with this issue so that they can do whatever they have the power to do within their profession to help change the system. That could mean changing additional NFPA codes or local building codes in their own communities or agencies, or at the very least disseminating this information to the public.

On the secondary level, I hope that people will take away a personal recognition of the danger that CO poses for themselves and their families. This is a danger to all of us. We need to do whatever we can to get information to our family and friends about the importance of carrying an alarm, and being aware of this danger when you travel. When you pick a hotel, try to find a place that has carbon monoxide detection. I hope they feel empowered to do all of those things. If my parents had had this information, it would have saved their lives.

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: COURTESY OF KRIS HAUSCHILDT