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Leaky pipe blamed for carbon monoxide death at Long Island restaurant

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A carbon monoxide leak that killed a Long Island restaurant manager and sickened 27 other people over the weekend was blamed on a faulty pipe for a water heater, and the tragedy prompted the restaurant chain's chief executive to call Sunday for stronger safety measures.

Police and firefighters responded to a Legal Sea Foods restaurant in Huntington, N.Y., on Saturday evening after a report that an assistant manager had fallen and hit her head in the basement.

Shortly after arriving, police said, the emergency responders began to feel sick and suspected they had been poisoned by carbon monoxide — a colorless, odorless gas released when something is burning. The gas can cause suffocation.

Authorities managed to rescue the assistant manager, but it was too late to save the manager, Steven Nelson, 55, of Copiague, who also was found unconscious in the basement. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.

Twenty-seven people with non-life-threatening symptoms, including four ambulance personnel and three police officers, were treated at hospitals, police said. Most of those sickened were Legal Sea Foods staff. No restaurant patrons reported becoming ill.

On Sunday, Huntington fire investigators blamed the carbon monoxide poisoning on a leaky flue pipe for a water heater in the restaurant's basement. City officials issued a summons to the business for having faulty equipment.

Legal Sea Foods had passed inspection last March and was due for another inspection next month.

Carbon monoxide poisonings are relatively common in homes, but businesses also occasionally fall victim to the gas.

On Sunday, a probable leak in Maine sickened 21 people, forcing the Falls Motel in Ogunquit to be evacuated and closed until further notice, according to the Ogunquit Fire Department.

A similar incident happened last week at a Westin Hotel in Linthicum Heights, Md., where 20 people reportedly fell ill from carbon monoxide.

At the Falls Motel in Maine, as at the Legal Sea Foods restaurant in Long Island, there were no carbon monoxide alarms, according to officials investigating the incidents.

Such devices are required for New York residences with fuel-burning energy sources or attached garages under "Amanda's Law." The legislation was enacted in 2010 after the death of Amanda Hansen, 16, of West Seneca, who died of carbon monoxide poisoning during a 2009 sleepover at a friend's house.

The New York state fire code doesn't require restaurants to have carbon monoxide detectors, however, said A.J. Carter, a spokesman for the town of Huntington, N.Y.

On Sunday, the president and chief executive of Legal Sea Foods vowed to exceed the law's bare minimum at the chain's roughly 30 restaurants across the East Coast.

"Steve was an outstanding colleague and his loss is devastating," Roger Berkowitz said in a statement. "This terrible tragedy highlights the inadequacy of the codes for carbon monoxide detectors in commercial spaces."

Berkowitz said company officials would conduct an "exhaustive" safety check at all its restaurants.

"This includes not only ensuring that we meet local codes, as we did in Huntington, but putting a plan in place to exceed them in order to safeguard everyone," Berkowitz said.

matt.pearce@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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