Poison in the Night

There it was, the sound of an engine, that low steady grumble. The little girls heard it – they were just 11 and 12 – and they told the mother. You parked the car in the garage and it’s still running, they said. But she told them they were wrong. Oh no, she said, it’s just the fan, cooling down the motor. It’s a big car, you know, and it gets hot.

Nothing to worry about, not even worth looking. So the little girls gathered up some snacks, went to watch a movie. Giggling, the way you do with your best friend. They were having a slumber party at the 11-year-old’s home, after all. The mother went to bed, sleeping away the soft May night. And the car kept running – a Ford Escape, with a big gas tank to burn – keeping up that low growl in the closed garage, the rumble in the dark.

But in the morning, the mother woke up – sick, dizzy, disoriented, knowing that something, something was wrong, that the air itself was wrong. She reached for the phone, 911, calling for help. She went into the garage and there it was, the running car. She turned it off – investigators say – threw the keys on the kitchen counter, stumbled into a shower stall to wait for the rescuers.

The house was quiet when the rescuers came and the air was wrong. They had to go back outside, gear up, put on their protective masks and oxygen tanks. They took the mother away, saved her at the hospital. But the little girls stayed behind. One lay on the kitchen floor, the other on the carpet in the family room. Still as death in that all-wrong air. The families buried them side by side in a cemetery – they were best friends, you know – in Boca Raton, Florida, where they lived.

The mother tried to make it different, change the story at first. She was afraid; she couldn’t bear it. The car was defective, Loretta Wilson told the police. She couldn’t turn it off; she didn’t realize that the garage vented into the house, too close to the family room where the little girls were laughing and watching that movie. But the police tested the car. It clicked on and off perfectly, like the good machine it was, and slowly, slowly they coaxed the whole story out, the way her daughter Amber had asked her about the running car, the way she’d turned away. Almost six months later, in December of last year, they charged the mother with manslaughter, with “culpable negligence” in the deaths of the little girls, Amber and her friend, Caitlyn Brondolo, side by side now in the warm Florida ground.

If there had been a trial, there were too many things that a prosecutor could have said. He could have said that we’ve known, almost since the invention of the internal combustion engine, that fuel does not burn perfectly in such machines. That among the byproducts of that imperfection is the gas carbon monoxide, colorless, odorless, deadly. That it comes from such a simple formula, just an atom of carbon and atom of oxygen needed to make a CO molecule, and that it kills simply too. Just binds to the proteins in our blood that carry oxygen, muscling that life-sustaining gas out of the way. That carbon monoxide suffocates the body as saturates the bloodstream. That the federal government estimates that it kills about 500 people a year, sickens more than 15,000. That we’ve known for a good hundred years or more, that people die from letting carbon monoxide seep into an enclosed space, not just any people, the faceless numbers, but friends and lovers, husbands and wives, our sons and daughters.

“Ultimately, this difficult case is about an assignment of responsibility,” Palm Beach County state attorney Michael McAuliffe wrote in a statement for the public. “While no evidence exists that Ms. Wilson intended to harm the children, this tragic event reinforces the unwavering principle that parents and guardians of children have the paramount responsibility to protect their children and those in their custody.”

The mother pleaded guilty on December 19, 2009, the day after she was arrested. A judge sentenced her to five years probation, to psychological counseling, to community service educating others about the dangers of carbon monoxide. The case itself was enough to remind anyone to install carbon monoxide detectors, check leaky gas appliances, keep their families safe. But the mother with her guilt and her grief and her daughter gone to the warm ground, no one could be untouched by that. She could help keep others safe. So they thought, they hoped.

Until this summer drew to its end and they tallied the numbers in Palm Beach County. Last year, in all of 2009, four carbon monoxide poisonings, including the mother and the lost girls. This year, so far, 28 poisonings, and three dead. One death from a boat left running in a boat house. Two dead from – yes, unbelievably, but yes – cars left running in closed garages. A 29-year-old woman who forgot to turn off her Lexus. An elderly man who just didn’t remember that his Lincoln sat rumbling in his garage while the air in that house went wrong. Six rescuers who went to his house were sickened by that poisoned air; the levels, so they said, measured 150 times above safe.

As if we are ever safe. Still, the experts puzzled over why this was happening. Maybe, one said, we just haven’t persuaded enough people to buy carbon monoxide detectors. The old man didn’t have one, did he? Nor the young Lexus owner nor the man with the boat. But why not? Why not install some common sense protection after a hundred years of knowing, knowing that we do leave cars idling, gas appliances do leak, that carbon monoxide is a silent drift of poison in the air, that people do die.

The mother could have answered that one, maybe. Told them that you don’t need the detector because you’re so sure that it will never be you. The poison gas is always destined elsewhere. You’re sure it will seep into someone else’s life, odorless, colorless, unrecognized. So when you hear that low growl of warning in the garage and when the little girls ask, you just laugh, tell them it’s nothing, send them off to watch a movie, and let yourself drift to sleep while the night closes in around them.

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40 Responses to Poison in the Night

  1. Grant says:

    Another situation where you can get carbon monoxide poisoning is from gas cookers, heaters (etc.) intended for outdoor use used in spaces with no or poor ventilation, such as in caravans, tents and presumably yachts and boats. (I have memory of a case from people cooking within a tent dying from poisoning. Always a dumb idea to cook inside a tent anyway because of the fire risk, you’re pretty much trapped if anything goes wrong.)

    Here’s one story outlining a few cases in NZ:
    http://www.3news.co.nz/Couple-killed-by-carbon-monoxide-poisoning/tabid/423/articleID/114719/Default.aspx

  2. John Rennie says:

    Another stunning example of your excellence as a writer, Deborah, thank you. You found a moving, literary way to convey what could so easily have been just a public service message: install your carbon monoxide monitors, people!

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  4. Randi Farina says:

    Deborah,
    You are so right. This story should be enough for every family to run out and get themselves a carbon monoxide detector. Jill and Chris Brondolo know that it would have saved Caitlin and Amber’s life.

    We ask that in these beautiful girls memories, please protect your families with a CO detector in your home. The Caitlin Brondolo Charitable Foundation will be supplying CO detectors to newborns leaving the Boca Raton Community Hospital, in their New Mommy Bags. Please join us in spreading awareness, and consider a gift of a CO detector to your family and friends… it could save a precious life one day…. or maybe two precious lives.

    Randi

  5. Deborah Blum says:

    Thanks so much, John. Huge compliment coming from a writer like you. And you did boil it down beautifully to what matters. Yes, install those carbon monoxide monitors!

  6. Ed Yong says:

    What John said. There’s such a wonderful rhythm to the words.

  7. Tracey S. says:

    Wow, scary but beautifully written piece. Growing up my room was next to the garage and after reading something like this my folks installed a carbon monoxide detector and I felt so much safer. But it’s instances like this that make me paranoid…if my husband or anyone else even mentions or asked if I turned something off (car, oven, etc) or locked the door, even if I know for sure I did, I have to get up and check. I would never forgive myself if something happened, and once the question’s been raised you HAVE to check.

  8. Maitri says:

    Thank you for this touching post. We had a scare recently and installed a plug-in carbon monoxide and explosive gas detector with battery backup (like this one) recently. If your house uses gas, I would also check the external gas meter and associated fittings for leaks (the smell is a dead giveaway).

    P.S. UW alumna here!

  9. david ropeik says:

    From Dave the author – Eloquent, and inventive, turning the corner into the science through the “what the prosecutor could have said”.

    From Dave the “expert” on risk perception; Stories like this are more tragic confirmation that we are not, and can never be, rational creatures about risk. Neither all the evidence nor eloquence will turn the next lazy/drunk car/truck/boat owner into Perfectly Rational MAN/Woman. I once advised health authorities in a county in Arizona how to communicate about CO. They had among the highest rates of poisoning of anywhere in the country because a marina on the Colorado river concentrate several hundred boaters, in relatively windless conditions, who despite all sorts of signage left their engines on all day while they drank and partied.

    And one other risk perception thought. We tend to focus on loss more than gain. I wonder what has happened to the rate of CO poisoning since detectors became common, and in many places have became mandatory. How many lives WEREN’T lost?

  10. Maryn says:

    So lovely and so haunting. Well done.

  11. Julie says:

    Isn’t carbon monoxide fascinating? It never ceases to amaze me how the difference in just one atom differentiates an essential chemical (CO2) and a life-threatening menace.

    Thank you for this story.

  12. Colin says:

    I’m surprised that not a single car manufacturer has made an option of an external and internal CO detector. The internal CO to detect CO in the cabin (think suicide or car in a ditch in winter) and external CO to detect a rise in ambient CO (think car in a garage). If either exceed a level then the engine is shut off automatically. Both are instances of the car being parked so there’s zero risk in killing the engine.

  13. jean carlson says:

    beautiful and brilliant as always

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  18. It is unfortunate that such tragedies should occur, however, in response Colin’s idea (which, on the outset, appears to be a good idea) – isn’t there some serious question as to whether individuals who cannot properly operate their motor vehicles while *parked* should be in possession of drivers’ licenses?

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  21. Paul London says:

    I came here searching for information on the precise cause of death when people commit suicide by leaving their engine running in their garage (for a story of my own). I subsequently found this wonderfully moving piece, and couldn’t resist replying here.

    It really is, as has already been said, a beautiful piece of writing, and I wish that all science writing was so poetically balanced between sincerity, fact, and example. I’ve recently come to notice a distasteful increase in the numbers of people who are turned away from “science” – treating it as something intended to suck all fun out of life. Often it seems that this is because of a “let’s assume all scientists are right” approach to online journalism (in particular) that means we end up with completely contradictory stories being headline news in the same month.

    Real science is not just interesting – it’s important, and it’s important to get it right.

    Thank you for re-affirming that – I genuinely mean it :)

  22. Deborah Blum says:

    I really appreciate your very kind words – and also completely agree with your point. It bothers me too that somewhere in the education process we managed to turn so many people away from science at a time when science literary makes such a difference. And when science if approached right is so fascinating and so fun. Many, many thanks!

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  28. Laura says:

    What a horrible thing to sentence that mother to, educating other people about carbon monoxide poisoning.
    So she couldn’t ever forget it and let it be past or let it go.
    That is a kind of torture.

  29. Gaythia says:

    Deborah, did you see this: My father talks about having taken hot boiled potatoes in his pocket to school as both a handwarmer and lunch. That seems like a much better idea than this news item from China about students carrying small containers of burning coal:

    http://behindthewall.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/01/11/5812246-as-americas-youth-celebrate-china-burns#comments

    Small coal burners seem to me like a recipe for carbon monoxide poisoning.

  30. Gaythia says:

    In my comment above I meant to say baked potatoes above of course, the obvious science being that you can bake a potato to a much higher temperature than the boiling point of water.
    For the Chinese students, on the way to school, they are adding to the polluted air they must breath, but the photos showing them huddling over the coal containers while studying, what is the overall ventilation then?

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  34. Carey says:

    Please visit the http://www.caitlinfoundation.org website to see what Caitlin’s Aunt, Uncle, and parents have created in her name. Their efforts to spread awareness about carbon monoxide poisoning are ongoing and very much alive. They have spent almost two years now haunted by the fact their little girl could have lived along with her best friend had there been a CO alarm in the home. The baffling mystery is how the mother and a little dog lived while the girls died. Thank you Deborah for a story that incorporates science in with the truth.

  35. Deborah Blum says:

    Absolutely do visit this. I think this is such an important point – that we underestimate the danger of CO, that we’re casual with it, that awareness and care could save so many really valued lives. Thanks for posting the link and reminding us about the Caitlin Foundation.

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  37. Marcy says:

    I just bought a carbon monoxide detector because of this post. Love the blog, love the book, looking forward to the next one. :)

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