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Hotel Death Blamed on Faulty Heater

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 20-year-old member of a visiting Canadian volleyball team remained comatose Wednesday from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a faulty hotel wall furnace that authorities believe killed his teammate.

Henry Kim Wong was in the intensive care unit at UC San Diego Medical Center, where he was listed in critical condition, according to a hospital spokesman.

Wong is a member of the Calgary-based Southern Alberta Institute of Technology volleyball team, which was in San Diego for a series of games. The 12-person team was staying at the 210-room Mission Valley Inn, at 875 Hotel Circle South.

The unconscious Wong and his roommate, Cory Louis Korosi, 21, also of Calgary, were discovered in their second-floor room about 2:30 p.m. New Year’s Day. Korosi was already dead.

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Authorities said Wednesday that the wall heater in the small room was clogged by lint and soot, causing the spewing of deadly but odorless, colorless and tasteless carbon monoxide.

Korosi’s blood showed a high level of the toxin, leading the county medical examiner’s office to a preliminary judgment that he died of carbon monoxide poisoning, which was confirmed following an autopsy.

A spokesman for San Diego Gas & Electric said an inspection of the furnace showed that the heater’s intake system was partly blocked by lint and dust, and that the venting system was also partly clogged by soot.

As a result, said SDG&E; spokesman Fred Vaughn, the natural gas heater was working poorly. Asked how long it would have taken for the furnace to become so dirty, Vaughn said, “It would take some time. It didn’t happen rapidly.”

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The furnace was taken apart and turned over to the Metro Arson Strike Team, which is investigating the death. Fire Capt. Al Macdonald said Korosi’s death is being handled as an accidental one. “We believe it was not malicious,” Macdonald said.

He said the city’s Building Inspection Department was looking at the other wall units at the hotel.

Jack Brandais, spokesman for the department, said two city inspectors joined by others from SDG&E; checked about a third of the hotel’s wall heaters Wednesday, a job that is expected to be finished today.

Brandais said that, under the city’s housing code, the hotel is required to maintain the heaters in a safe condition. If the city finds any violations, it will issue an order requiring Atlas Hotels, owner of the Mission Valley Inn, to correct the problems.

Fines would be levied only if Atlas refused to comply, Brandais said.

Although he could not be sure, Brandais said the furnace appeared to be an original piece of equipment from the hotel’s construction, which he believed to be in the early 1960s.

Atlas officials declined all comment beyond a four-paragraph statement in which they expressed the company’s “sorrow and concern over the tragedy.”

“This unfortunate event is the first time anything such as this has occurred, and we are shocked and surprised by this tragic incident,” the statement issued by Hank Hoxie, Atlas Hotels vice president of administration, said. “Our technical staff immediately conducted an inspection of the heating units at the Mission Valley Inn, and they have determined that these units are working properly and safely.”

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Authorities said safety checks of wall furnaces are done when a building is under construction, but they are not inspected by any public agency after that, except when a specific complaint is lodged. It is up to the owner of the building to inspect the heater to make sure it is operating safely, authorities said.

It’s not known how many of the county’s 40,000 hotel rooms are outfitted with wall heaters, though officials said they are standard in many older inns. Newer hotels commonly rely on central, forced-air heating units.

It appears that few cities have wall heater inspection programs, relying, as San Diego does, on self-maintenance by owners. In Anaheim, for example, which like San Diego is a destination for many tourists, the city does not regularly inspect hotel wall furnaces, said Gail McCloud, the city’s deputy fire marshal.

One city that does, however, is Las Vegas.

There, a Fire Department inspector is assigned to regularly check hotels, motels and apartments in the so-called high-risk area of downtown with old buildings, said Las Vegas Fire Marshal George Judd.

But the inspection process is slow because just one person does the work, so the city has placed a priority on inspections in older areas of town, Judd said.

In the last three years, only one person--living in an apartment with a bad wall heater--has died from carbon monoxide poisoning, Judd said.

Authorities in San Diego, as they do every winter when chilly temperatures arrive, again warned residents to check and clean their furnaces.

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SDG&E; will send someone to check a heater free if a problem is suspected. The city’s Building Inspection Department says that both city and state housing codes require home heaters to be in proper working order.

If renters suspect that their heater is faulty, or that it has not been serviced or inspected in some time, they should tell their landlord and ask that the furnace be checked. If the landlord refuses to have the heater serviced, renters should contact the building inspection department’s housing inspection division for help at 533-4550.

FURNACE SAFETY

VENT: Make sure the gases have an open vent to the outside.

PILOT LIGHT: Be sure the pilot light is bright blue.

BURNERS: Clean dirt away from pilot light and burners.

INTAKE AIR: Clear the air intake area of lint and dust.

Source: San Diego Gas and Electric


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