BY ROBERT P. MADER
OF CONTRACTOR'S STAFF
SALEM, VA. — More than 100 young people on campus for a summer program at Roanoke College in mid-July were sickened by carbon monoxide fumes produced by a gas-fired water heater that may have been improperly serviced.
Rev. Walter J. Vierling, a 91-year-old retired minister from Pearisburg, Va., was killed while staying in the multi-building residence halls called "Sections." Roanoke is a four-year college affiliated with the Lutheran Church.
More than 100 participants had been staying in the college's Sections residence halls for the "Power of the Spirit" conference, an annual event held for Lutheran congressional leadership. Also in those buildings were 37 teenage girls who were on campus for a program called Upward Bound.
After a build-up of carbon monoxide was discovered in the residence halls, 114 people showing possible symptoms of exposure were taken to area hospitals for evaluation.
Teresa Gereaux, public relations director for the college, said the campus had closed the Sections residence halls and that they wouldn't reopen for use until the source of the problem has been identified and corrected.
According to the Roanoke Times newspaper, the water heater was manufactured by State Industries.
"It has been determined that the cause of the carbon monoxide leak was a failure in the natural gas-fed water heater system, which is located in the basement mechanical room of the Wells, Yonce and Fox Halls complex," Salem Fire Chief Pat Counts said. "This system, as well as the other gas-fired systems, is designed to ventilate the products of combustion into the outside atmosphere. Due to a failure in one of the components of the system, the normally closed ventilation ducting was compromised, which filled the mechanical room with carbon monoxide gas.
"The mechanical room itself was ventilated by a fan that drew air from the outside into the mechanical room. This caused a pressurization of the room, which, over a period of time, forced the carbon monoxide gas into any crack, crevice or other opening in the building construction."
Because levels of carbon monoxide in the buildings were measured at between 200 and 300 PPM, the fire department believed that the CO levels in the structure increased over a long period of time.
"Records indicate that this appliance was inspected and permitted by the Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Labor and Industry on Oct. 31, 2005," Counts said. "The permit expires on Oct. 31, 2007."
The college has begun installing carbon monoxide detectors in all its residence halls.
Mark Petrarca, senior vice president/human resources and public affairs for State's parent A. O. Smith Corp., said the firm has verified that the water heater involved was manufactured by State.
"We don't have an exact date, but it was put in service in the late '80s, so it was not a new installation," Petrarca said. "What we did find in our initial investigation is that it appears some service was done on that unit recently. The university contracted for some service; either one of their people did it or somebody else did disassemble the venting system for the water heater, which allowed it to vent into the mechanical room.
" Other than that, this is a very sad event, but it looks like somebody not completing a repair or not setting it back up when they were finished with it."
The company has troubleshooters it sends into the field to investigate such incidents, Petrarca said. A.O. Smith and State will to continue to work with the university and others involved in the investigation and provide whatever assistance it can, he said.
"We'll wait and see if they need additional service and do whatever we can to make sure that nothing like this happens again," he said.
Petrarca said he didn't know who would be leading the investigation but believed that the college, fire marshal and perhaps the OSHA would be involved.
"We're obviously saddened by any situation like this whether it's our water heater or any water heater in general," Petrarca said. "We strive as an industry to make sure our products are safe."