By Ed Runyan
As tragic as it was when six people died in a house fire last summer on Warren’s West Side, the city could have had a nearly identical tragedy Sunday, Kenmore Avenue Southeast resident Fred Rivera said Tuesday.
Rivera and his wife, Carrie, were at home at 1 p.m. Sunday with his three children when their 13-year-old daughter starting feeling sick. They also have kids 16 and 3.
“My daughter complained that she didn’t feel good. She took a Motrin and fainted in the shower,” Rivera said.
Another 13-year-old, their daughter’s friend, fainted in the downstairs area, and that’s when the Riveras knew something was wrong at the house.
“We took everyone out of the house and called 911,” Rivera said. The girls regained consciousness and went to the hospital with the rest of the family to be checked out.
Doctors say everyone is fine, with no lasting side effects.
But Rivera hates to think how the situation might have played out if circumstances were just a little different.
Rivera said he now knows that the reason the girls fainted is because of a buildup of carbon monoxide in the house resulting from the furnace-exhaust pipe getting blocked with leaves.
The blocked pipe makes it pretty clear what happened. The leaves are burned on one side of the pipe. Fresh leaves are on the other end. No exhaust could get through.
“If it would have happened at night, we would all be dead,” Rivera said.
The section of pipe that was plugged was in the basement, close to the furnace, Rivera said. When the furnace was inspected, he was told the furnace also needs to be replaced, so he’s not sure yet what factors led to the accident or what he needs to do to prevent this from happening again.
For now, the family is staying with friends. They’re not allowed to re-enter the house until the furnace and exhaust problems are fixed.
“Lesson learned,” Rivera said. “I know of a few people who I’ve talked to who have gone and gotten carbon-monoxide detectors” as a result of what happened to his family.
Rivera said he also has bought one and will install it at his house whenever he’s allowed to get back inside.
Ken Nussle, Warren fire chief, said firefighters measured the carbon- monoxide level in the house at 152 parts per million — a high reading but not the highest he’s seen.
In November 2004, three people were flown to Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh after being poisoned by carbon monoxide at a home on Woodland Avenue Northeast. The reading inside that house was 370 parts per million, records show.
Carbon monoxide from a propane heater also was blamed for the death of an Oak Street Southwest man and his dog in November 2008.
Nussle said the symptoms felt by the two teenage girls on Sunday are typical of carbon-monoxide poisoning.
“At the lower levels, everyone thinks they have the flu,” Nussle said, “but 152 is pretty high.”
The Warren Fire Department responds to lots of calls during the winter for carbon-monoxide detectors going off, but there seems to be at least one call every year involving carbon- monoxide levels that actually have gone up to dangerous levels.
The most common reason for the problem is kerosene heaters being used indoors. They need ventilation, Nussle said.
Homeowners also should have the heating system checked once every year before the heating season begins, Nussle said.