Family narrowly escapes death from furnace fumes Pipe venting blocked by bird nest in flue

Amid Sunday night's blast of chilly weather, James F. Smith decided to warm his Essex home by turning on the furnace for the first time this season before settling in for the night.

But he didn't realize that a bird nest in the flue was blocking the pipe venting, causing a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas to fill his three-story rowhouse. If not for the quick thinking of a family friend and the speedy response of Baltimore County paramedics to diagnose cases of carbon monoxide poisoning, Mr. Smith is sure it "would have been all over" for him and his family.


Yesterday, as Mr. Smith was released from the hospital, county firefighters and paramedics walked through his Essex neighborhood to warn residents about the dangers of carbon monoxide. Although they could provide no data on the frequency of carbon monoxide poisoning, fire officials said incident calls are rising as the winter creeps in and people forget to inspect furnaces, fireplaces, flues and other venting devices.

For the Smiths, their mistake was a hard lesson.


The Smith family had settled down for the night about 11 p.m. Sunday in the house in the 1500 block of Hopewell Ave. Mr. Smith, 60, drifted in and out of sleep in front of the television while, unknown to him, his daughter, Shannon, and her friend, Ghia Karatzakis, started to feel ill in her room upstairs.

"I tried getting up, but I collapsed," Shannon, 17, recalled. "We heard the alarm go off in the morning, but there was nothing we could do about it. When Ghia's mom called in the morning to make sure we were up, we didn't have the energy to answer the phone."

No one is sure how Ghia, 17, managed to call her mother back and ask for her father and an ambulance.

Paramedics responded about 7:20 a.m. and found Mr. Smith unconscious on the living room couch and his 27-year-old son, Scott, dizzy in the basement. Mr. Smith's daughter and her friend, taken outside by Ghia's father, were lying down, barely moving.

"They were all lucky. Another half an hour to maybe an hour tops and they would have all been dead," said paramedic Jim Kinnard of the Back River Neck medic station, one of the first to arrive.

Fire officials said that while carbon monoxide is in the air, it usually causes no harm. But when the amount in the air rises, it attacks red blood cells by displacing the oxygen molecules needed to survive, developing a toxic compound called carboxyhemoglobin, fire officials said.

"It was all so unreal," said Scott Smith. "It's the only time I've ever been scared in my whole life."

Shannon added, "Yeah, even Gibby made it. She's the cat. "