Generator fumes kill 2, sicken 6 in Maine

A gas-powered generator was running in the basement when firefighters arrived

By Dennis Hoey
The Portland Press Herald

RAYMOND, Maine — Two people were dead and six were hospitalized Tuesday, apparently poisoned by carbon monoxide from generators that were providing power to homes left without electricity by Tropical Storm Irene.

The deaths of an elderly couple in Raymond are the first confirmed fatalities in Maine caused by the storm, said Rob McAleer, director of Maine's Emergency Management Agency.

''My heart sank when I heard about it,'' he said.

The Cumberland County Sheriff's Office said a neighbor went to check on the couple at 76 Musson Road in Raymond around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. The neighborhood has been without power since Sunday, when Irene brought torrential rain and powerful winds that knocked out power to nearly 280,000 customers of Central Maine Power Co.

The neighbor found the man and woman — both in their mid-80s — unconscious in the home and notified authorities.

Raymond firefighters entered the home and confirmed that the two were dead. Firefighters suspected carbon monoxide poisoning and took a reading with a carbon monoxide meter.

Raymond Fire Chief Denis Morse said the level was so high that it was beyond the device's measurement capabilities. A gas-powered generator was running in the basement when firefighters arrived.

Morse said the couple lived in a neighborhood overlooking Sebago Lake that consists of mostly seasonal homes.

Sheriff Kevin Joyce said the victims were out-of-state residents whose home was a seasonal residence. Their names were not released Tuesday night, pending notification of their relatives.

''All indications are they had been dead for a while'' when they were found, Joyce said.

''We suspect at this time that high levels of carbon monoxide may have been a contributing factor in the two deaths,'' the sheriff's department said in a prepared statement.

Joyce said the generator was not portable — it had been hard-wired — and apparently was installed some time ago. The generator was connected to an exterior exhaust system.

Andrew Smith, the state toxicologist, said his office learned of three other incidents of carbon monoxide poisoning Tuesday at homes in Oxford, Androscoggin and Penobscot counties.

Smith said he is prohibited by department policy from identifying the towns, ages or identities of the victims. He said each incident involved two people, who were taken to hospitals, treated for carbon monoxide poisoning and released.

Smith said all of the people were operating gas-powered generators in garages to compensate for the loss of power caused by the storm.

''These were significant poisonings. All of the cases could have ended up being fatalities,'' he said.

As of 9 p.m. Tuesday, more than 55,000 CMP customers remained without power. The company expected that number to drop to 50,000 outages by midnight.

''People may be tempted to run their generators in their garages or very close to their home, but this is extremely dangerous,'' Smith said in a statement released by his office. ''Gas-powered generators should always be used outside and placed at least 15 feet from windows and doors, including neighboring homes or buildings.''

Smith also advised homeowners to install carbon monoxide detectors equipped with fresh batteries.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas formed by the burning of most fuels. Gas-powered generators can cause poisoning if carbon monoxide builds up in enclosed or semi-enclosed spaces such as garages, even if windows are left open.

Warning signs of carbon monoxide poisoning are flu-like symptoms such as headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, drowsiness and confusion.

Smith said a single gas-powered generator can produce as much carbon monoxide exhaust as 100 idling automobiles.

If you suspect you have been poisoned, call 911, the fire department or the Northern New England Poison Center at (800) 222-1222.

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