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Freeze filling city's shelter

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The bitterly cold weather that has sent gas and electric meters spinning and forced hundreds of Baltimore's homeless to seek overnight shelter from single-digit temperatures contributed yesterday to the area's first cold-related death - a Fells Point woman who died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The 56-year-old Bank Street woman died and a second resident was hospitalized after their efforts to stay warm on the coldest weekend of the winter caused their home to fill with the deadly gas.

Baltimore police said Shirley Ann Jones was found dead in bed yesterday morning by her daughters, who had gone to the house in the 1500 block of Bank St. to check on their parents after getting no response to telephone calls.

Their father, William Chavis, 55, was found unconscious in a third-floor bedroom. He was taken to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where he was treated in the hyperbaric chamber and released, officials there said.

Police Lt. James Sharpe of the Southeastern District said a supervisor from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. found the couple's gas furnace, clothes dryer and water heater had been improperly vented.

"This is certainly a tragic situation," said Sharon Sasada, a spokeswoman for BGE.

As overnight temperatures fell into the single digits Friday and Saturday nights, hundreds of Baltimoreans without a warm place to stay sought warmth in the city's "Code Blue" shelter at 1400 E. Federal St. More than 180 people were taken in Friday night, and 165 on Saturday.

"That is way high for us," said city Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson. The totals were 92 on Wednesday and 183 on Thursday - the latter a record, he said. The shelter began last winter, and it is opened when overnight lows are forecast to dip below 20 degrees.

Last night's forecast called for a low of 24 degrees at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. More relief is expected today and tomorrow, with highs in the 40s and lows tonight near freezing. But forecasters expect frigid weather to return later this week, with a chance for snow.

As the cold continues, health authorities urged residents to check on neighbors and family members.

"The people we're concerned about when cold weather hits are the homeless people, people in housing with inadequate heat, the elderly who don't have family to check up on them," said Dr. Gregory H. Bledsoe, the attending physician this weekend at Johns Hopkins Hospital's emergency room.

The elderly are especially vulnerable to hypothermia because their bodies' internal thermostats may be impaired.

"Be sure they have adequate heat," Bledsoe said. "And if they have small space heaters, make sure that carbon monoxide levels are being monitored."

Small kerosene space heaters, faulty furnaces, gas stoves, fireplaces and other heaters that burn fuel can be a source of deadly carbon monoxide (CO). The use of kerosene space heaters is prohibited in Baltimore and restricted in some jurisdictions. Inexpensive CO monitors are available at most hardware and department stores.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, nausea and dizziness, which may progress to a loss of consciousness and death. Survivors might suffer from chronic neurological problems.

The frigid weekend weather wasn't all bad news, as skaters took advantage of frozen ponds as well as outdoor rinks.

Dozens of hardy souls braved the icy winds off the Patapsco yesterday for an afternoon of skating at the Ice Rink at Harbor Point in Fells Point, which has replaced the Rash Field rink for the season.

"It's fun to ice skate ... and when you exercise, you get hot," said Julie Armstrong, 10, of Lutherville. She was taking a break with her parents, John and Mary Armstrong, and friends Shannon and Meghan Coyne, ages 9 and 7, while the rink ice was being groomed.

The cold never topped 30 degrees yesterday. But that didn't seem to bother Jim Duffy, 39, or rosy-cheeked son, Andrew, 4. They drove in from Ellicott City to skate in sight of the city's skyline. "It's just pleasant to be here today, on this cool, crisp day," said Duffy, a former collegiate hockey player.

But elsewhere the cold was a problem, as residents, utility and fire crews grappled with broken water mains and frozen pipes, including a ruptured main in the 5800 block of The Alameda that resulted in the loss of water to about 150 homes and apartments, said Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the city's department of Public Works. The water main, which was reported broken about 3:30 a.m., was fixed by 10:30 p.m.

Around the city, there were dozens of reports of broken water pipes, Kocher said, which is not unusual when temperatures drop. As the ground defrosts, it can cause pipes to crack and rupture, said Kocher, who reported water pipe breaks on Wilkins and Remington avenues and Windsor Mill Road. Most had been fixed or were being fixed late last night.

The cold snap began Wednesday, when overnight lows dipped below 20, prompting the city to declare a "Code Blue" emergency and open its Federal Street shelter. Last year, the refuge took in more than 3,700 people on 34 nights, and the city saw fewer deaths by freezing than in any year for the past decade. Officials give part of the credit to the new shelter.

Beilenson said about one in six of the people who sought relief from the cold late last week also availed themselves of the shelter's substance abuse and mental health services.

He said he expects the shelter to reopen this week, when overnight temperatures are again expected to sink into the teens.

Shock Trauma reported one weekend case of hypothermia - a duck hunter who reportedly fell into the water. But emergency room personnel at Johns Hopkins said they saw an influx of homeless people who appeared to have come for a warm place to spend a few hours.

"Anytime there's a lot of cold weather ... we see an increase in the homeless people," said Bledsoe. They complain about "general things," but it is not assumed that they're coming just for the warmth. "We take them seriously," he said. "But once we've ruled out the other things, that's what we suspect."

The weekend brought Baltimore the coldest weather in nearly a year, but no records.

The National Weather Service said Saturday morning's low of 6 degrees at BWI was the coldest since Jan. 18 last year, when the area awoke to a low of 5.

Temperatures on Saturday struggled to 19 degrees at BWI, despite the bright sunshine. That produced a frigid average of 13 degrees for the day - 19 degrees below normal.

The mercury sank fast once the sun set, hitting bottom at 8 degrees at the airport just before 5 a.m. yesterday. The lows fell to 2 degrees in Lutherville, 6 in Fallston and 5 in Eldersburg. The Inner Harbor recorded a low yesterday of 14 degrees.

After two days in the 40s, "we're gonna get back into the cold," said John Newkirk, a meteorologist in the weather service's Sterling, Va., forecast office.

An approaching cold front will stall daytime highs Wednesday in the upper 20s, with a chance of snow. "Whether it's significant or not depends on where the system's actually going to move through," Newkirk said. But "we know it's coming. I suspect we'll probably be on the northern fringe of anything" that falls.

The overnight lows will be in the teens again. Thursday, Friday and Saturday will bring more sub-freezing highs in the day and lows again in the teens. And there's another chance of snow on Saturday, Newkirk said.

"It's wintertime, you know?"

Sun staff writers Lynn Anderson and Richard Irwin contributed to this article.

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