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2 accidents prompt boat-heater probe Woman killed, 2nd injured by noxious fumes.


ANNAPOLIS -- One local sailor died and another was hospitalized after being overcome by carbon monoxide fumes while taking showers on boats recently, prompting a national marine organization to investigate.

The American Boat and Yacht Council, a consumer protection group in Mayo, plans to take a closer look at propane water heaters in the wake of the accidents, which have rocked Annapolis' sailing community.

While the accidents may have been coincidental, an official with the 38-year-old council said, they could signify the need for redesign or additional safety features, perhaps as simple as a warning label.

In mid-April, 35-year-old Catherine Hartman, whose family has been in the marine business for years, fell unconscious in a shower while the boat was nearing the end of a trip from Florida to Annapolis.

Crew members rushed her to the Patuxent Naval Air Station Hospital, where she was pronounced dead. An autopsy found she died of cardiac arrest.

Investigators with the Maryland Department of the Environment took air samples that afternoon, April 12, in the shower area. They found dangerous levels of carbon monoxide when the heater was on with its vent closed, a spokesman said.

Last week, Robin Wase, 19, fainted while taking a shower on a 50-foot catamaran docked at Bert Jabin's Yacht Yard in Eastport. She was rescued when several people heard her moaning. The St. John's College student was treated at the Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

Both women inhaled carbon monoxide -- a deadly, colorless and odorless gas -- in showers operated with propane heaters manufactured by the same company, according to interviews with police, relatives and the boat owners.

Common in Asia and Europe, propane heaters have become increasingly popular with boat owners here. The energy-efficient units, which cost from $200 to $700, are manufactured by at least three firms.

Wolter Systems Inc., a Cincinnati company, makes a stainless PTC steel, top-of-the-line heater that was installed in the boats on which the accidents occurred.

"This is like a bad dream," company founder and President Gerry Wolter said yesterday. "We've been in the market since 1984 and always prided ourselves that we design the safest heater. I'm terribly upset. I don't know if it's the installation or operator error or what."

Instruction booklets warn that the units should be mounted outside the shower, unless a vent or flue pipe is installed to allow fumes to escape, Mr. Wolter said. "We tell people in no uncertain terms they have to have a flue."

Operator fault may have caused both of the accidents, according to those interviewed. The vent was accidentally closed early May 20 when Ms. Wase was taking a shower, said William M. Mathers, president of Pacific Sea Resources Inc. and owner of the catamaran on which Ms. Wase was a guest.

But William Steitz, who hired Ms. Hartman to manage his sloop when he bought it a year ago, insists that the heater vent was open. State Natural Resources Police are investigating the circumstances of her death about 2 1/2 miles off Cedar Point.

State environmental investigators concluded in a preliminary on-site report that carbon monoxide combined with the loss of oxygen in the boat's sealed bathroom area "could have contributed to the incident." They have recommended more tests.

The accidents have scared some Annapolis sailors about taking hot showers, and left boat builders wondering about safety risks.

Already, the Marine Trades Association of Maryland has received several calls from nervous manufacturers. "When something like this happens in the boating community, it's a little like the Ford Pinto issue -- if I get hit from behind, will my car explode?" said Mick Blackistone, executive director of the association.

Tony Smith, owner of Performance Cruising, a catamaran company in Mayo, said he has installed a Japanese model in some 300 boats and never received a complaint. Now, he's warning customers to be doubly careful.

Mr. Mathers said he believes the fear is unfounded. Propane water heaters are highly reliable and any fumes created would automatically evaporate unless the flue is closed, as happened when Miss Wase was taking a shower, he said.

"The manufacturer has been making these for eight years, and there's only been one accident before," he said. "You can draw your own conclusions."

But the sister of Ms. Hartman is troubled by the accidents. "You just can't have people dying taking showers on boats," said Debbie Holt, one of four children of Edward C. Hartman, who owns the Annapolis Water Taxi and has interests in other marine businesses.

The American Boat and Yacht Council began studying propane heaters last year, said Tom Hale, the council's technical director.

A committee that recently wrote a comprehensive report on carbon monoxide poisoning will take a closer look at propane ventilation next month.

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