Rodney Todd cared for his seven children, running their Princess Anne household, preparing meals and then working in dining services at a nearby college. For his five daughters, "he did their hair," said Lloyd Edwards, Todd's stepfather.
All of them — Todd, 36, and his children ages 6 to 15 — were found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in their modest, one-story, yellow-siding home on Antioch Avenue on Monday. Police said Tuesday that they died in bed and a power generator with an empty gas tank was found inside the house.
"It appears as though they were sleeping," Princess Anne police Chief Scott Keller said. "Probably it was bedtime and they decided they needed some light and probably some heat. ... Even though it was spring we were having some pretty chilly nights."
Edwards said Todd had a generator because the electricity had been shut off at the home.
Delmarva Power said the home had been without service since March 25, when workers discovered a stolen electric meter and shut off power for "safety reasons." The utility originally disconnected power there in October, before the Todds began renting the home, and Delmarva said no request had been made to reconnect service.
The police chief said the utility has been subpoenaed to document what happened. Maryland's Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, also is investigating.
State law prohibits utilities from cutting electrical service for nonpayment of bills from Nov. 1 through March 31, without an affidavit filed to the Public Service Commission. Utilities can terminate service without notice if it finds hazardous conditions or the customer had tampered with equipment.
Edwards, who was called on to identify the bodies of his seven grandchildren and his stepson, described Todd as "a magnificent father."
"His main job was taking care of his seven children," Edwards said. But "he never complained."
The children's mother, Tyisha Luneice Chambers, told the Associated Press on Tuesday: "If I had known he was without electricity, I would have helped."
"I'm just numb," she said. "Like it's a nightmare but it's not."
Chambers said she had been the primary breadwinner when they were together and continued to pay child support until losing track of them in Todd's last move. She said Todd was physically abusive to her. He pleaded guilty to second-degree assault in 2011.
Todd's mother and Edwards' wife, Bonnie, identified her grandsons as Cameron and Zhiheem, who were 13 and 7, and her granddaughters, Tyjuziana, Tykeria, Tynijuzia, Tyniah and Tyberyia, who were 15, 12, 10, 9 and 6, respectively.
Another son of Todd's, Rodney Jr., was not living at the home.
Bonnie Edwards said she spent every birthday with her son and his children. The two eldest, Tyjuziana and Cameron, watched over their younger siblings as their father worked to put food on the table, she said. The younger ones loved to joke around, ride bikes, play basketball at the playground near their home and challenge each other to dance games on a Nintendo Wii they owned. They all exemplified the best qualities of their father and proudly looked up to him, their grandmother said. For his part, "He knew their likes, dislikes and attitudes," she said. "He knew them from the inside out."
Todd and the children were discovered after he didn't show up for work for days. His supervisor at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore grew concerned and called police. According to police, she had not seen Todd since March 28.
Stephanie Wells, the supervisor, joined a number of people who came to the home Tuesday to pay respects.
"He was private. He was the type of person — he didn't ask people for help," said Wells, 49. "He was just low-key. Took care of his kids."
Sarah Hardy, 29, and Angela Collins, 38, friends of Todd's, sat outside the home Monday night and all day Tuesday. They couldn't believe he and his family were no longer inside.
"We're waiting for our brother to come out that door," Hardy said.
Hardy said she had grown close to Todd after the two were introduced by her child's father. "Our bond grew strong, strong, strong," she said. "He didn't want to call me his friend; he wanted to call me his sister."
When Hardy heard he had died, "I just rushed down here," she said, adding that she couldn't believe it when she saw the bodies being carried out. "I think they're just ghosts they brought out of the house. I'm still thinking they're in there and they just are quiet and don't want anyone to realize."
Public safety and health officials say the deaths are another tragic reminder of preventable deaths caused by carbon monoxide poisoning.
Last year Maryland counted 17 carbon monoxide poisoning-related deaths, 12 of which were suicides, four of which were accidental, and one undetermined, according to the state medical examiner's office.
A statewide law requires hard-wired carbon monoxide detectors in new dwellings built after Jan. 1, 2008. Officials recommend homeowners install operating alarms outside sleeping areas, as well as one on each level.
Despite awareness of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning, "there is absolutely still work to be done," said Clifford S. Mitchell, director of the environmental health bureau with the state health department. "You end up with a situation where you unfortunately have to warn people every time."
Mitchell said the challenge is ensuring that people heed the warnings even in "stressful situations" — such as being homeless or without power for a prolonged period after a storm.
Mitchell said generators should not be used inside the home, and should be kept at least 15 feet from the building. "Even if a generator is outside, if it's close to the house, you have the potential for carbon monoxide entering," he said.
Dr. Kinjal Sethuraman, a physician at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center and assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said generators are a common cause of carbon monoxide toxicity.
Carbon monoxide poisoning patients are often sent to Shock Trauma because it has a hyperbaric chamber, which is used to treat patients by administering oxygen at higher pressure.
Last year, the hospital treated 55 patients from Maryland, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania and Virginia with the hyperbaric chamber — compared with 95 patients in 2013 and 65 in 2012, Sethuraman said. She said those figures do not include milder cases in which physicians didn't have to use hyperbaric treatment.
Carbon monoxide is odorless, colorless, and the symptoms are "nonspecific," Mitchell said.
Mitchell said carbon monoxide combines with hemoglobin in the blood and prevents oxygen from being carried in the blood. Early symptoms may be dizziness or a mild headache, he said, and "you can progress very quickly to more serious symptoms, to unconsciousness and death."
Officials warn that appliances that burn fossil fuels, as well as chimneys, can present a danger if they are not functioning properly.
Baltimore County in 2010 enacted legislation that broadened carbon monoxide detector requirements to rental units, including those built prior to 2008.
County police and fire spokeswoman Elise Armacost said she couldn't recall any recent carbon monoxide fatalities. "The law really made a difference," she said.
In Havre de Grace, Chief Scott Hurst of the Susquehanna Hose Company successfully advocated for all buildings in the Harford County city to have carbon monoxide detectors in 2010.
The fire chief said he pushed for the legislation after responding to a leak at a home of a family of four in November 2009. The house did not have working detectors and the residents were ill, he recalled.
"If they would have gone to bed that night, I have no doubt we would have lost that family that night," he said.
State Sen. Jim Mathias, whose district includes Princess Anne, said lawmakers should take a "closer look" at the use of carbon monoxide detectors. Mathias, who once was mayor of Ocean City, recalled how the resort town expanded an ordinance requiring carbon monoxide detectors after a man and his child were found dead from a gas leak at a hotel in 2006.
"One person is one too many, and gosh, knowing they are children is heartbreaking," Mathias said of the deaths this week. "It's just terrible."