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Hotel mishap leaves one dead

January 18, 2008 9:19:22 PM PST
A construction canopy outside a hotel trapped carbon monoxide from a hot water heater vent and forced it back into the building, killing a guest and sickening four others Friday morning, officials said.

Levels of the poisonous gas were so high that a hazardous materials team was forced to retreat until the Best Western Allentown Inn & Suites could be ventilated.

The Upper Macungie Township hotel was evacuated and all the hotel's windows were opened after the basement and first floor filled with carbon monoxide, police said. About 80 guests had been staying at the 77-room hotel, which opened in March.

The dead hotel guest was identified as Philip D. Prechtel, 63, of Hilton Head Island, S.C. Four guests who were feeling the effects of the gas were taken to hospitals for treatment. Two police officers and three paramedics also were hospitalized, but only as a precaution, Berks-Lehigh Regional Police spokesman Pete Nickischer said.

Investigators traced the source of the gas to propane water heaters in the basement.

Workers repairing stucco on the exterior of the three-story hotel had erected a canopy of plastic sheeting near the spot where the heaters were vented, apparently to shield themselves from wind and precipitation. Investigators believe the canopy trapped the poisonous gas and recirculated it back inside the building, near the room where Prechtel was staying, said Grant Grim, the Upper Macungie Township fire commissioner.

Another guest in that room, a woman, was hospitalized in critical condition. She was blue in the face and unconscious but still breathing when paramedics arrived.

"They were dragging this woman as fast as they could by her hands and wrists down the hall," said Douglas High, an auditor with the state Department of Education, who had been eating breakfast in the first-floor dining room. "So I knew, OK, let's get out of here. I set a new world's record for getting out."

John Haas, 60, and his family were staying at the hotel as they made the trip back home to Columbus, Ohio, from his mother's funeral in Brooklyn, N.Y. His 13-year-old daughter, Emma, started feeling symptoms around midnight, including stomach cramps, nausea, dizziness and blurred vision.

She initially thought she was suffering from food poisoning.

"It was really bad. I hurt a lot," said Emma Haas, who was treated at a hospital for carbon monoxide poisoning and released Friday afternoon.

John Haas said everyone else in the family was fine, including his 19-year-old daughter and 6½-month-old granddaughter, though a little shaken, "especially when we found out there were some serious injuries."

A hazmat team was forced to retreat from the building for a half-hour due to high levels of carbon monoxide in the basement and on the first floor.

Grim said the building had been completely ventilated by late morning and posed no further risk. The hotel reopened Friday afternoon. Some guests were put up at other hotels while others were treated to breakfast at a nearby diner, said Larry Kolasensky, the Best Western's general manager.

"Our concern is for the welfare and safety of the guests and employees," he said.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was at the hotel conducting an investigation.

Martin Plastering Contractors Inc. of Terre Hill, Lancaster County, which was identified as a subcontractor working at the hotel, released a statement to WFMZ-TV saying it was "deeply saddened by the loss and illnesses." Company officials did not immediately return a call from The Associated Press placed after business hours.

Carbon monoxide, which has no color or odor, can cause sickness or death. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headaches, dizziness, disorientation, nausea and fatigue.

Kolasensky said he wasn't sure if the hotel had carbon monoxide detectors. Upper Macungie Township enforces Pennsylvania's Uniform Construction Code, which does not require carbon monoxide detectors in either new or existing construction.

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Associated Press writer JoAnn Loviglio in Philadelphia contributed to this report.


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