More than four years after Norman Wiley and his two stepdaughters died of carbon monoxide poisoning in their Cove Village townhouse, life in the hard-edged Essex complex is still haunted by the deadly, invisible gas.
The carbon monoxide alarms continue, despite scores of inspections and repairs aimed at eradicating the deadly threat. Since the Wiley family deaths in July 2005, emergency crews have responded to more than 180 carbon monoxide-related calls in Cove Village, according to county records, earning the 299-home rental community a dubious reputation among firefighters and building code enforcers.
More than 90 times they detected levels high enough to recommend that the homes be evacuated, according to reports from the Baltimore County Fire Department. And nine times they found carbon monoxide levels deemed potentially lethal. At least 26 Cove Village residents have been treated at local hospitals for exposure, including 12 last summer.
James Holley, who lives on Barnacle Court, equates life in his Cove Village home to "living on top of a time bomb."
"I don't even sleep upstairs anymore," he said. "I sleep downstairs, closer to the door."
Sawyer Realty Holdings LLC, the College Park-based landlord that owns and manages Cove Village, has worked to fix the problem and calm residents, installing carbon monoxide detectors after the deaths four years ago and responding with a flurry of inspections and repairs each time another dangerous reading is reported.
Last year, the company began an intensive effort to find a solution, ultimately installing hundreds of new appliances, ductwork, flues and other improvements costing more than $670,000, Sawyer officials said. In June, as the alarms continued, county officials threatened to shut the complex down within two weeks, then backed off when Sawyer began yet another round of communitywide inspections and repairs.
"We've tried to do everything we could, and everything we were asked to do, to resolve this issue - and not just with Band-Aids, with real solutions," said Gary J. Gianino, Sawyer's chief operating officer. "We're a responsible landlord. And when we find an issue, we address that issue."
Still, a Baltimore Sun investigation reveals that nearly all of the potential carbon monoxide hazards identified at Cove Village over the past year were first discovered years earlier by a carbon monoxide expert, investigating for Wiley's wife, who explained his findings in detail to Sawyer employees. And one potential threat he found still exists in some Cove Village homes.
Among The Sun's findings:
* Sawyer officials told residents in June that they discovered potential threats at Cove Village during a "comprehensive investigation" in late summer 2008, yet the Wiley family's forensic investigator says he briefed Sawyer employees about those problems as early as September 2005.
* Several Cove Village homes visited recently by The Sun contained the same furnace-installation flaw that the investigator blamed in part for the Wiley family deaths. The flaw, which can allow the heating and cooling system to pump carbon monoxide throughout the house, has been mitigated by other improvements Sawyer made, but Baltimore County officials say the furnaces would violate local and national building codes if installed that way today.
* A short ventilation pipe on the Wileys' roof - identical to most in the complex - was identified by the investigator as a possible source of deadly backdrafts, but Sawyer began installing extensions on the pipes only last summer.
* Records from the Baltimore County Fire Department show a pattern of carbon monoxide-related calls and elevated readings at Cove Village every summer since the deaths in 2005, but county officials did not call for comprehensive inspections until residents of three houses were hospitalized this summer.
In a recent interview with The Sun, Gianino said Sawyer's approach at Cove Village has always been to attack potential safety problems aggressively and without regard to cost - a characterization of the company's responsiveness that is shared by Fire Department and county officials who have worked closely on the problems.
Asked in the interview why the company did not act immediately to fix all the problems uncovered in 2005, Gianino and Sawyer Vice President Thomas Rucker initially said they were unaware of the investigators' report.
Two weeks later, they released a statement saying that the investigator's findings were motivated by the prospect of winning a legal judgment rather than protecting residents. "Sawyer Realty is not going to respond to a document created by an out-of-state consultant-for-hire, whose primary purpose was to help [a] law firm pursue its lawsuit," the statement said.
In fact, most of the findings detailed in the report have been validated over the past year by Sawyer's own investigations.
Meanwhile, the carbon monoxide alarms at Cove Village continue. On Monday, firefighters responded to an alarm at 28 Skipjack Court, the fourth at that address in 17 months, and detected dangerous levels there for the third time.
Residents of the community off Back River Neck Road, many of them low- and middle-income earners on public assistance, say they would move if not for the one-year leases they signed before learning of the carbon monoxide problems. They describe frequent sirens and fire trucks in the community, and recount stories of neighbors taken to hospitals and of living in the invisible shadow of an odorless, colorless and deadly gas.
Eunice and Grover Lindsey, who have experienced six carbon monoxide alarms, five of them with elevated readings, in their Barnacle Court home over the past four years, say they won't let their granddaughter's friends stay over because of the threat of poisonous gas.
"We just don't want other people's kids here, not overnight," said Grover Lindsey, 75.
In August, a man who provided only his first name, Daniel, was packing belongings into a rental truck to move his wife and 7-month-old daughter away from Masthead Court after little more than a year.
"We're leaving because of it," Daniel said of the carbon monoxide problem. "Plus all the fire trucks, seeing them every day or every other day. I don't want to risk it. It might be me next time."
A sudden awareness
Although there were two carbon monoxide incidents at Cove Village in 2004, residents interviewed by The Sun said they never gave much thought to carbon monoxide before the Monday afternoon in July 2005 when firefighters evacuated every home on High Seas Court. That was the day 35-year-old Adrian Wiley called 911 to say that three members of her family were unconscious and she was feeling sick.
Emergency crews arrived at 20 High Seas Court less than five minutes later, records show. Wiley, who appeared groggy and tired, told them she had awakened to find her husband, Norman, 48, lying on the bathroom floor. Her two daughters had been asleep in bunk beds upstairs. But rescue workers found 15-year-old Sheriesa in the downstairs living room and 14-year-old Ja-Na on her bedroom floor. All three were dead.
The Baltimore County Fire Department recommends evacuating any home with a carbon monoxide level of more than 9 parts per million. Anything higher than 99 parts per million is considered potentially lethal. Inside the Wiley home, firefighters detected a level of 160 parts per million and figured it had been as high as 800 parts per million before they opened the windows and doors.
Carbon monoxide, also referred to as CO, inhibits the body's ability to absorb oxygen and is responsible for hundreds of deaths each year in the United States. Automobiles and space heaters are the most frequent culprits, but any fuel-burning appliance is a potential source.
Like most Baltimore-area patients with a serious case of carbon monoxide exposure, Adrian Wiley was taken to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center for treatment in the hospital's hyperbaric chamber. She declined to be interviewed for this article.
Officials at Sawyer Realty, which manages more than 40 rental complexes, mostly in Maryland, say they never had a problem with carbon monoxide until the deadly incident at Cove Village, a community built in 1967 and bought by Sawyer in 2003. Fire Department officials say the incident in which three people died in 2005 was the first that year at Cove Village involving carbon monoxide.
Sawyer reacted to the incident by fixing faulty flues in the Wiley home and other Cove Village units, and by installing carbon monoxide detectors in each home in the complex. Almost immediately, firefighters started getting false alarm calls from nervous residents, many of whom had scarcely heard of carbon monoxide before learning of its role in their neighbors' deaths.
Some complained that they could smell the odorless gas. One resident called 911 because she didn't understand what the lights on the alarm meant. Another called to say the home had no detector.
But within a month, firefighters had detected elevated carbon monoxide levels in six more houses, records show. On Aug. 19, 2005, emergency workers arrived at an unlicensed day care center, two doors down from the Wileys, and found seven children complaining of headaches, nausea and other symptoms of exposure. A reading showed 90 parts per million. The children and two adults were taken to the hospital.
After the second incident, apprehension turned to fear, residents say. Suddenly, it seemed the Wiley deaths might have been more than a freak accident. Residents describe sleeping with windows open, or at relatives' homes, or hardly sleeping at all.
"Something else needs to be done about this before someone else dies," Denise Stemple of High Seas Court told The Sun at the time. "There has to be a reason the carbon monoxide is so high and that this keeps happening."
An expert's report
Mike Hanzlick arrived in Cove Village on Sept. 14, 2005. The former head of gas operations for Colorado's public utility, Hanzlick travels the country as a forensic plumbing investigator and expert witness. The Cochran Firm, founded by the famous defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, had hired him on behalf of Adrian Wiley. Along with Sawyer employees, he entered the Wiley home to inspect its gas appliances. The group included the company's director of safety, Christopher Davis, according to two people who were there.
Firefighters had identified the home's water heater as the source of the carbon monoxide, and Hanzlick concurred. It wasn't a malfunction in the appliance but rather a host of potentially deadly flaws in the home's design and in the installation of its appliances that caused the heater to produce the gas, he concluded.
The small, tightly sealed houses lacked adequate air flow for all three gas-fired appliances - the stove, furnace and water heater - to operate simultaneously, he found. And without adequate air for combustion, gas appliances can give off carbon monoxide. Hanzlick also found a blockage and faulty connection in the unit's ventilation system that could prevent the deadly gas from escaping. And the rooftop vent was too short, allowing downdrafts to blow gases back into the house.
Even more troubling, Hanzlick said, was a problem with the furnace's air- intake system, which needs fresh air to function properly. The Wileys' furnace had no fresh air connection and drew air from the small utility closet that housed the furnace and water heater. That not only drew scarce oxygen away from the appliances, increasing their chance of producing carbon monoxide, it allowed the deadly gas to be pulled straight into the forced-air system and be pumped throughout the house.
"It was a very serious installation problem - negligent, in my opinion," Hanzlick said in a recent interview with The Sun, recalling the conclusion he provided to the attorneys who hired him.
And it wasn't isolated to the Wiley house, which is identical to, or a mirror image of, every other house in the complex. Hanzlick inspected the appliances in Stemple's house and saw the same problems.
After his inspections, Hanzlick said, he went back to the house at 2 Driftwood Court - which serves as the Sawyer rental office and a model unit - and briefed employees about his findings. He told them about the flues, the roof vents and the furnace-intake problems, Hanzlick said. Then he photographed the appliances in the rental office, which were all properly installed and served as a perfect counter- example to include in his final report.
"I explained to them pretty thoroughly what I had found," Hanzlick said. "There's no question that someone knew the right way to do it. Everything in the rental office was fine."
The Cochran Firm filed a lawsuit on behalf of Adrian Wiley in September 2006, accusing Sawyer officials of failing to "properly install, inspect and maintain the appliances in the Wiley residence ... including the hot water heater and furnace."
The lawsuit did not lay out specific deficiencies in the Cove Village homes, but documents in the case say Sawyer was provided "significant informal discovery," including "multiple expert reports regarding liability and findings in this matter."
According to Hanzlick, he completed a written report of his findings in November 2006 and it was sent to Sawyer officials and attorneys as part of the lawsuit.
Attorneys at the Cochran Firm declined to comment about the outcome of the case. But court records show that Sawyer reached a settlement with Wiley in the summer of 2007 for $4.14 million. The Wiley lawsuit, still in its early stages, was withdrawn, and none of Hanzlick's findings became public.
While declining to comment on Hanzlick's report or other evidence exchanged with the Cochran Firm, Sawyer officials said they have always made whatever repairs were recommended by county and Fire Department officials or by their own experts.
"Since the tragedy that occurred four years ago, Sawyer has spent more than $600,000 on solutions that have been recommended by qualified engineering experts," the statement said. "These experts have been focused on solutions to help ensure the safety of our residents, not creating paperwork to win litigation."
Davis, the company's safety director, declined requests for comment.
More emergency calls
Fire Department records show that in the years after Hanzlick reported his findings, the emergency calls at Cove Village continued.
From June to September 2006, firefighters responded to 22 alarms from carbon monoxide detectors in the neighborhood and five times detected levels of 35 parts per million or higher. On Aug. 6, they took a resident of Barnacle Court to the hospital with exposure symptoms, noting "improper ventilation." On Sept. 17, a woman and two children from Seagate Court were hospitalized. The reading inside their home was 135 parts per million - 36 percent above the threshold that the Fire Department considers potentially lethal.
The calls continued through 2007 and 2008, always spiking in the summer and falling off in winter. Fire Department records describe a host of possible causes, including malfunctioning appliances, poor ventilation, dirty stoves and burning incense. In late July and early August 2008, firefighters measured "potentially lethal" carbon monoxide levels in three Cove Village homes.
A pattern began to develop. Calls accelerated in June or July, then rarely went more than a week between incidents before tailing off in the fall. County inspectors say furnaces in the complex have blowers that force gases through the flue when the heat is turned on, perhaps explaining the gas buildup in warmer months when the blowers are not operating.
Roughly half the calls to Cove Village were deemed to be false alarms after firefighters found no carbon monoxide. They often blamed faulty detectors. But the false alarms occurred mostly in summer as well.
In late 2008, after consulting with county inspectors and private plumbing specialists, Sawyer began installing ductwork in every Cove Village unit to bring fresh air into each appliance closet. It was the most comprehensive repair since the three deaths and it addressed one of the major problems identified by Hanzlick three years earlier.
Residents say Sawyer officials were typically quick to respond, replacing carbon monoxide detectors or suspect appliances, and that they seemed as stumped as everyone else about the cause of the alarms. Luis Miguel Doradea, a resident of Barnacle Court, said maintenance is among the community's best features.
"I have no complaints. They've put lots of new things in," including an exhaust fan over the stove that vents to the outdoors, Doradea said in Spanish.
"They did a lot of stuff," said Okezueh Daberechi of High Seas Court, whose carbon monoxide detector sounded in July. Maintenance workers disconnected his stove and checked for problems but ultimately blamed a low battery or a malfunctioning alarm.
"They are trying," Daberechi said.
In recent interviews, officials at Sawyer and in the county's permits and inspections office suggested one possible explanation for the emergency calls - the fact that carbon monoxide detectors have been installed throughout Cove Village.
Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. plans to submit legislation Monday requiring all rental properties in the county to have detectors. Sawyer installed them at Cove Village years before the devices became common.
"I'm not as worried about the residents of Cove Village as I am the residents of other communities that don't have CO detectors," said Timothy M. Kotroco, director of Baltimore County's Department of Permits and Development Management, which oversees plumbing and building inspections.
Still, the ubiquity of carbon monoxide detectors does not explain why firefighters have detected elevated levels of the gas at Cove Village more than 90 times in the past four years.
County officials say they don't know what to make of that either. Baltimore County Fire Chief John Hohman said the local and national standards for carbon monoxide are so nebulous - there is little agreement on how and where the gas should be measured or what levels are safe - that he's not sure which "positive" readings are serious threats.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration permits exposure of 50 parts per million over an eight-hour shift. The Environmental Protection Agency and most local fire departments and code officials set 35 ppm as the danger threshold.
But medical studies suggest that even lower levels can cause long-term harm. Earlier this year, scientists at UCLA exposed a group of pregnant rats to CO levels of 25 ppm and found brain damage in the newborns. A researcher at Yale University, whose study of 9.3 million Medicare patient records was published this summer, found that in patients 65 or older the risk of hospitalization for cardiovascular disease increased proportionately with their level of carbon monoxide exposure, even at levels as low as 1 part per million.
Hohman notes that Cove Village residents are not alone in their experiences with carbon monoxide problems. Such calls occur elsewhere, and the numbers keep rising. There were 895 recorded incidents in Baltimore County in 2005 and nearly 1,000 the next year. In 2007, there were 1,240; last year, 1,355.
Many of the calls are not real emergencies, Hohman said, but some turn up significant levels of the gas. Last month, five of the carbon monoxide calls in Baltimore County - two in Rosedale, one in Essex, one in Middle River and another in Golden Ring - registered above 60 parts per million, with one as high as 280 ppm.
'How do you know?'
On June 24, a family on High Seas Court was hospitalized with headaches and nausea after firefighters detected a carbon monoxide level of 84 parts per million. Four days later, six people in a house on Skipjack Court were hospitalized after a reading of 47 parts per million. Quiana Smith, one of the residents treated, moved out of Cove Village last summer because of the issue.
"It was me, my mother, my aunt and the four kids - everyone had to have oxygen. It was an ordeal," Smith said, adding that the latest scare was her second carbon monoxide alarm in a month.
"Each time, it was just before we were going to sleep," she said. "Had we closed our eyes, who knows what would have happened?"
After the two incidents in June, Kotroco said, he and other officials had had enough. The county's code enforcement office issued a citation June 29, not just to the house where the most recent incident had occurred but to the entire Cove Village complex. It gave Sawyer two weeks to get every appliance inspected and certified or face a county-imposed shutdown of the complex, and county officials began searching for alternative housing in case the residents had to be moved out.
While acknowledging that officials might have detected a pattern sooner if they had studied the county's records closely, Kotroco said the rash of serious calls last summer made it clear that earlier repairs initiated by Sawyer hadn't solved the problem.
"It really flared up over there in June and caught our attention, to the extent that we cited the entire complex," Kotroco said.
Within a day or two, Sawyer officials posted fliers on Cove Village homes notifying residents of the impending inspections and repairs. The flier also noted the "comprehensive investigation" Sawyer implemented "starting in the late summer of 2008" and described repairs and modifications completed as a result, including installation of fresh-air ducts, replacement of flues and connectors, and installation of louvered doors on the appliance closets to promote air flow. The message also promised new inspections of each home and detailed several improvements being scheduled, including "installation of rooftop vent pipe extensions on 80 smoke stacks."
Each of the improvements mentioned - better ventilation, new flues, extended rooftop vents - had been identified as needs in Hanzlick's report four years earlier.
And during inspections at Cove Village in September - arranged by The Baltimore Sun with cooperation from residents - instructors from the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 486 training school in Rosedale found houses with other potential dangers that had been identified by Hanzlick. Among them was 20 High Seas Court - the house where Wiley and his stepdaughters died.
Russell A. Wiebking, an instructor, and Allen B. Clinedinst III, the school's director, reviewed Hanzlick's report and then inspected six Cove Village homes. Both said they saw numerous improvements from the situation described four years earlier.
Each unit appeared to have the new flue vents and louvered access doors mentioned in Sawyer's letter to residents. And each had ducts to provide the appliance alcove with fresh air, minimizing the risk of the furnace drawing too much oxygen from the small enclosure. Throughout the complex, Sawyer had installed new vents above the gas stoves.
Clinedinst and Wiebking also noted that while some Cove Village homes had extended vent pipes on the roof, minimizing the chance of a downdraft forcing combustion gases back into the house, many did not. Since their inspection, Sawyer and county officials say all of the vents have been extended.
And several furnace intake openings, including the one at the Wileys' old house, were not connected to outside air with sealed ducts. Neither Clinedinst nor Wiebking believed that poses the serious threat Hanzlick described, particularly given Sawyer's other improvements. But they said it illustrates why county inspectors and contractors need to focus on a home's entire climate control system when investigating a carbon monoxide problem, not simply one appliance or one piece of equipment.
"They've added a number of things that improve the situation," Clinedinst said. "But if I was still having a CO problem, I wouldn't be satisfied. You'd have to rethink everything in here until you didn't have any readings at all, even if it meant tearing out the walls."
When Kotroco was asked about the air intakes, he said they would violate the plumbing code if installed today, though not the code in effect when the complex was built in 1967. He also said it's not something that would be caught by a code inspection in Baltimore County, which, unlike some other local jurisdictions, does not look at ductwork. County inspectors focus on the operation and safety of gas appliances, not the layout and operation of an entire heating and cooling system, he said.
On June 30, firefighters, county building inspectors and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. technicians began a tour of every home in Cove Village, inspecting appliances and testing for carbon monoxide. The inspections found 20 houses with elevated readings.
County officials told Sawyer to replace 78 gas stoves that operated with pilot lights instead of electric igniters. Sawyer officials say they doubt there was anything wrong with the old stoves, but the company quickly replaced them. The company also installed new flues, stove vents, gas shut-off valves - whatever the inspections turned up, Sawyer officials said.
Yet the carbon monoxide calls continued.
On July 17, firefighters got a reading of 200 parts per million in one house, and a resident there complained of lightheadedness. In August there were four alarms for which firefighters detected no gas, and one in which a reading of 31 ppm was blamed on the unit's oven. Firefighters found another elevated level in October and another on Monday.
Many residents told The Sun they stay in Cove Village only because they fear they would be sued for breach of contract if they left.
Sawyer officials say they allow tenants to move if they have a carbon monoxide incident in their home but for business reasons cannot allow every tenant to break a lease because of the issue.
Last month, Troy Roberts was sitting in a plastic lawn chair on the small concrete landing in front of his house. He lives next door to the home where three members of the Wiley family died and said he keeps a window partly open year-round out of fear of the deadly, invisible gas.
Like many of the residents interviewed, he regrets his decision to move to Cove Village.
"They didn't tell me when I moved in that people died next door. I wouldn't have come," he said.
"They keep fixing things, but how do you know if they solved the problem? It's a scary way to live."