4 More Carbon Monoxide Deaths In Northwest

Three people console each other at a neighboring home to where four family members were found dead Monday, Dec. 18, 2006, in Burien, Wash., of apparent carbon monoxide poisoning after running a generator in their garage, raising the death toll from last week's fierce windstorm to 12. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
AP Photo
The bodies were scattered through the yellow suburban home. The generator was in the closed, attached garage.

For investigators, the scene was all too familiar in the wake of a wind storm that left more than a million people without power in Washington state.

"This kind of death is entirely preventable," King County sheriff's Sgt. John Urquhart said. "You just cannot take generators and that type of equipment inside a home."

Four members of a family — the youngest a 14-year-old boy — were dead, apparently of carbon monoxide poisoning, by the time deputies arrived Monday at their home in Burien, a south Seattle suburb, to check on them. The fifth, a grown son identified by a friend as Cahn Tran, was taken to Harborview Medical Center, where he was in critical condition Monday night.

The fatalities raised the death toll to 12 from last week's wind storm, the state's worst in more than a decade. Carbon monoxide — an odorless, colorless and highly toxic gas produced when gasoline or charcoal is burned — was also responsible for killing two men over the weekend. One had been using a portable generator in his living room in the east suburb of Kirkland; the other was using a charcoal grill to heat his bedroom in Renton, another suburb south of Seattle.

"The reason it's so problematic is people can't smell it, can't see it, can't taste it. So by the time it's built up in an environment, it's often too late," CBS News' The Early Show medical contributor Dr. Emily Senay said.

Poor ventilation in areas where stoves, heaters and generators are used can lead to a buildup of poisonous carbon monoxide fumes, according to Senay. Symptoms of poisoning can be headaches, dizziness, nausea and fatigue.

Falling trees, rushing water, burning candles and downed power lines caused the other deaths.

Friends identified the parents of the Burien family as Khanh Tran, a landscaper, and his wife, Thuy Tran. About 20 neighbors and relatives gathered near the home on a busy residential street after hearing the news. They said power in the neighborhood had gone out overnight Thursday and came back on Saturday.

Family friend Son Nguyen, 53, said he knew Khanh Tran when he lived in Vietnam. He saw him Friday morning at a local market, but wasn't able to speak with him because Tran was on his cell phone.

"We are very, very sad, because he was a good friend," Nguyen said.

Urquhart said relatives last spoke with the family on Saturday and called deputies Monday afternoon, asking that they check the house.

Deputies broke into the home and found the bodies.

"One person had come downstairs, perhaps to turn the generator off, and he collapsed," Urquhart said.

Health officials estimate that hundreds of people in Washington have suffered some degree of carbon monoxide poisoning since the storm. High winds that knocked out power — and heat — to more than a million homes and businesses late Thursday and early Friday were followed by temperatures in the 20s and 30s. Many residents turned to grills or portable generators to heat their homes, despite emergency workers' warnings about the danger.

About 200,000 utility customers remained without electricity late Monday in Western Washington, and officials said it could be days before power is restored to all of them. Some 5,000 King County residents were still without telephone service.

By Monday, 62 people had been treated in a hyperbaric chamber that re-oxygenates the blood at Virginia Mason Medical Center. Dr. Neil B. Hampson, at the hospital's Center for Hyperbaric Medicine, said the storm had led to a "carbon monoxide epidemic."

State Health Secretary Mary Selecky urged residents to check on friends, relatives and neighbors, and to warn them not to use grills or generators indoors — even with windows open.

"Many people are still without power or phones so it is very difficult to reach them with this important message. This is why we need everyone's help," she said.

Four people died shortly after the storm hit on Thursday night, packing heavy rains, lightning and winds that gusted to about 70 mph in the Seattle area. One woman was trapped by suddenly rising water in the basement of her house in Seattle. Three people were killed by falling trees, two in vehicles south of Tacoma and one in a trailer park in McCleary, near Olympia.

A 48-year-old man died Saturday in a fire started by a candle burning in his home in Spanaway in Pierce County. And on Sunday, a man and his dog were killed when they stepped on a power line while out for a walk in Gig Harbor, Pierce County sheriff's Detective Ed Troyer said. Troyer said neighbors had been clearing debris near the power line for days, unaware that it was live.

By several measures the devastation exceeded that of the wind storm on Jan. 20, 1993, which left five people dead, at least 79 homes destroyed and about $130 million in damage.

Damages from the current storm have yet to be assessed, but the death toll this time is higher and the impact on the power grid appears to be more severe. Seattle City Light was reconnecting 175,000 buildings, compared with 110,000 in the 1993 storm, and Puget Sound Energy reported more damage to major transmission lines.