CHATHAM — A Crowell Road resident is clinging to life after being exposed to deadly carbon monoxide in her home Monday.
Officials received a call Monday morning from two women at the senior center reporting that their friend, 91-year-old Nancy Olson, hadn’t shown up as expected.
“She goes there regularly to play Scrabble, and she didn’t show up this morning,” Deputy Fire Chief David DePasquale said Monday. Police arrived at the house at 494 Crowell Rd. and summoned firefighters for help entering the locked building. They found Olson inside, barely responsive, and firefighters began medical treatment. They noticed a slight odor inside the house and removed her to the ambulance, suspecting that the house was filled with carbon monoxide.
Other firefighters donned breathing masks and entered the house again, finding concentrations of the gas at over 250 parts per million, an amount that can easily incapacitate a person over time, but is not immediately fatal. Olson was rushed to Cape Cod Hospital, where she remained in critical condition as of press time Tuesday afternoon.
DePasquale said while the department will investigate the home’s oil heating system to rule out a malfunction, there are indications that Olson’s vehicle was left running in her basement garage. Officials say the vehicle was not running when they arrived Monday but had a warm engine and an empty gas tank.
Chatham Police Lt. Michael Anderson said there are no indications that the vehicle had been intentionally left running, and there is no indication of foul play. It is not clear how long Olson had been exposed to the gas.
While rescuers were alerted by an odor of automobile exhaust in the house, carbon monoxide itself is odorless and colorless. The house was not equipped with carbon monoxide detectors, DePasquale said.
“The fact is, this stuff can and does happen,” said Chatham Fire Lt. Justin Tavano, the department’s public education coordinator. He and Anderson held a special senior safety program on Friday at the Eldredge Public Library, and talked about the need for seniors to check their smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. And on Thursday, Tavano and Chatham Fire Capt. David Ready held a meeting at the council on aging to talk about expanding a program that offers home hazard assessments to senior citizens, checking for proper house numbers, lighting, safety rails, and smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. A limited outreach effort is already underway, but more resources are needed to expand it.
“Unfortunately we didn’t get to this person. We probably would have, because she’s active in the council on aging,” Tavano said. “This was totally preventable.”
Council on Aging Director Mandi Speakman said the tragedy has left the senior center reeling.
“I hope we can use this as a springboard for education and awareness,” she said. Through newsletters and special events, council on aging clients are regularly reminded about carbon monoxide detectors and home fire safety, and the staff offers to visit clients’ homes to replace batteries or install new detectors, Speakman said.
“We offer all these things, and not a portion of all the people who should be taking us up on these things, do,” she said. The experience has staff members wondering what they might have done to prevent Monday’s poisoning.
“I think we’re all desperately trying to figure that out. What are the magic words?” Speakman said, with emotion in her voice.
Even as town officials look to expand the home hazard assessments, Tavano urged people to act now to protect themselves by making sure they have functioning detectors on each level of their house, with fresh batteries. Smoke alarms installed more than 10 years ago must be replaced, as do carbon monoxide detectors that are more than five to seven years old. All detectors have the manufacture date stamped on the back side, he said.
Speakman urged people to follow the example of Olson’s friends and call to check on elders who miss an appointment, or when anything seems amiss – even something as minor as a newspaper that hasn’t been picked up from the front lawn.
“It’s always better to risk having someone annoyed with you,” she said.