With so many still in dark, another threat emerges
Sunday, December 17, 2006 - Page updated at 09:32 AM By Jennifer Sullivan and Jonathan Martin Seattle Times staff reporters
As 400,000 utility customers weathered another day without power, a new, lethal consequence of last week's windstorm emerged: carbon-monoxide poisoning.
A 26-year-old man was found dead in Kirkland on Saturday morning with a generator running in his living room. About 100 other people, including an 11-month-old baby, were treated at Seattle-area hospitals on Saturday after inhaling the fumes of generators and charcoal barbecues dragged indoors.
About a half-dozen were listed in critical condition at Harborview Medical Center. Virginia Mason treated about 55 patients in its hyperbaric chamber, which re-oxygenates the blood, and the medical center said it expected more. Some were still sick after the hyperbaric treatment and were admitted to Harborview.
"We're dealing with a carbon-monoxide epidemic in Western Washington," said Dr. Neil Hampson in the Center for Hyperbaric Medicine at Virginia Mason. "This has the potential to be the worst case of carbon-monoxide poisoning in the country."
Among the patients treated at Harborview and Virginia Mason were 34 Kent residents, mostly Somali immigrants, who had been cooking and warming themselves over charcoal grills brought indoors, according to the Kent Fire Department.
The state Department of Health asked the federal Centers for Disease Control to immediately translate its poison-prevention worksheets into five African and Southeast Asian languages. Public Health-Seattle & King County also asked groups active in immigrant communities to caution against using heat sources with toxic byproducts.
Health officials emphasized that the poisoning was preventable with basic precautions, and that quick treatment could stave off long-term brain damage or reduced functioning.
But the patients treated on Saturday were largely low-income, non-English-speaking people who may not have known the risks, said Dr. Bob Kalus, Harborview's associate director of emergency care.
"I think this is a fairly dire circumstance, and I wonder tremendously about people who are desperate, cold and do not quite know where to turn."
400,000 still in the dark
About 400,000 customers throughout the region remained without power late Saturday, including about 36,600 in Seattle. Utilities reported painstakingly slow progress because of heavy damage to main "feeder" lines, and had called in crews from as far away as the Midwest.
Seattle City Light said homes in Shoreline, South Seattle and Southwest Seattle could stay dark into Monday. Crews found far more damage to feeder lines in South Seattle on Saturday than first expected, and, in some cases, falling branches cut power to homes where electricity had just been restored, said Janice Boman, a Seattle City Light spokeswoman.
"Yes, it does seem like a long time," Boman said. "My power is out, too. I understand. We're working as fast as we can."
Puget Sound Energy warned that some of its customers in the Cougar Mountain area, rural Woodinville, North Bend, Snoqualmie and Duvall could be without power for several more days. By Saturday evening, the utility had restored power to half of 700,000 customers who lost power. "This may be the largest windstorm we've ever encountered," said Roger Thompson, a PSE spokesman.
Gov. Christine Gregoire expanded an earlier disaster proclamation to cover the entire state, freeing counties to spend whatever money was necessary to help victims. The National Guard was also mobilized to help truck fuel and supplies to hard-hit areas.
The Red Cross set up shelters in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties in anticipation that dropping temperatures would make darkened homes uninhabitable
Late Saturday night, portions of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport lost power: the north satellite and the subway running to it; the D concourse; and the north cargo area. No flights were diverted, although some incoming planes were sent to different gates, said spokesman Bob Parker. On Friday, a power outage disrupted flights.
Century Telephone reported a network outage in Vashon Island and east King County on Saturday night, including Carnation, Fall City, North Bend and Snoqualmie. Customers without service were advised to call 911 with cellphones or go to fire stations.
"A silent, deadly thing"
During the last severe storm, the 1993 Inauguration Day storm, Virginia Mason saw 35 carbon-monoxide poisoning cases over a three-day period.
It saw far more than that between Friday and Saturday alone. Dozens of patients were rolled into the largest hospital-based hyperbaric chamber in the country for treatments lasting up to two hours.
Louis Duke, 72, was overcome by carbon-monoxide fumes while in his daughter's bathroom in Bonney Lake early Friday morning. The fumes from the outside gas generator that had provided electricity since Thursday overwhelmed the entire house.
Deborah Ray and her husband had to break down the bathroom door to get Duke out. The couple were also dizzy and had headaches from the fumes.
"I didn't know what was happening to me," Ray said as she tended to her father at Virginia Mason Medical Center. "It's a silent, deadly thing."
While Duke and his family were poisoned by generator fumes, the majority of the patients were poisoned by charcoal-burning stoves brought inside for warmth and cooking.
In addition to the Kent residents seen at Harborview, the hospital also treated people from Georgetown, South Park and Tukwila who had been poisoned by charcoal, said Dr. Elinor Graham.
Female patients had higher levels of poisoning because they were the ones cooking on the grills and standing near them for warmth, she said.
People poisoned by carbon monoxide will feel dizzy and nauseated and have headaches and respiratory problems.
Just before 11 a.m. Saturday, Kirkland firefighters were called to a house in the 10500 block of Northeast 124th Street after someone reported finding a man dead inside the house. Fire crews found a generator operating in the living room and the 26-year-old man on the floor. Firefighters measured a high level of carbon monoxide in the home, Kirkland Fire Department Capt. Larry Peabody said.
It could have been the same story for Wayne Fagerlund, but he was lucky.
Fearing his family's plant nursery could die off without power in Thursday's storm, Fagerlund bought a new generator, sent his family to their home in Olympia, and settled into a trailer at the nursery in Rainier, Thurston County.
He said he knew about carbon-monoxide poisoning and set up the generator outside. But he didn't realize fumes could seep into the trailer.
On Friday, Tammie Fagerlund found her husband unconscious on the bed; his eyes were open and he was barely breathing. "I went inside and he was in the corpse pose," she said. "It scared the bejesus out of me."
Fagerlund was airlifted to Virginia Mason and received hyperbaric treatment Friday and Saturday. He planned to go home Saturday night. "I'm tired and lucky," he said Saturday as he prepared to join more than a dozen other patients in the hyperbaric chamber.
Staff reporters Cara Solomon and Steve Miletich contributed to this report.
Bob the Buffalo says:
All patients suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning will be seen by the on-call physician, Dr. Darwin.