Stockton, CA – After a career of “trusting the instruments” ex-pilot takes batteries out of his alarm and drops dead

Brig. Gen. Stephen L. Vonderheide was a veteran pilot used to trusting his instruments.

The following article is based on a report filed by Augusto (Kiko) Villalon to the USCG, which asked that the accident be investigated. Kiko Villalon is a veteran of the boating industry and is known to virtually every boat builder in the U.S.

When Vonderheide’s fiancée, Annette Oaks, did not hear from the retired general on Jan. 1, she called the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Dept. They investigated and found the 61 year-old general dead in his boat. The generator was still running. A single power cord was found running from the boat to a shore power connection, but the breaker was thrown and no electricity was getting to the boat.

CO was the obvious cause of death

Fire department personnel tested the air inside the vessel and found 530 ppm of CO in the salon. There was also a propane gas heater in the main cabin, but it was turned off. Subsequent tests of this unit by the Sheriff found it to be safe, registering only 1 ppm on his CO meter after start up.

Upon inspecting the engine room, which was directly below the salon, Villalon discovered the corroded generator exhaust manifold which had a long crack that was 2 mm wide. (See picture above.) That is where the trouble started, pumping exhaust gas into the engine room. But how did the CO get from the engine room into the main salon above?

A panoply of problems. Note the 12” splice in the exhaust connected to the corroded elbow from the wet exhaust pot. Note the flexible 6”ventilation tubes” which go through the engine room overhead into the salon to vent overboard, well above the waterline.

Villalon found a 1/4” gap around the engine room ventilation tube where it pierced the salon sole. Even though these tubes were hidden behind joiner work, eventually the CO found its way into the salon and set off the Kiddie combo smoke/CO detector. The detector was found on the galley counter with one battery removed, the only way to silence its annoying alarm.

The CO detector worked

The detector was tested, later with its original batteries, next to an engine exhaust port and after 45 seconds the alarm went off loudly announcing with a recorded voice that there was carbon monoxide present. It seems fairly obvious that the general thought the unit was mal-functioning, so dismantled it.

Villallon says that 530 ppm is not a particularly high reading, but enough to render a person unconscious, and if alone, “eliminating the possibility of recovery.” He says that in similar cases he has found CO concentrations in the thousands of ppm.

At the Sheriff’s request, a Delta Marine Sales mechanic inspected the generator installation and stated: “We believe that the probable cause for the crack is due to a fairly common failure in this application due to age and metal fatigue.”

Villalon points out that “lack of proper inspection and maintenance of the exhaust system was the cause of the incident.”

The Boat TEST Team adds:

There are many obvious lessons to be learned from this tragedy, including the need for proper regular maintenance as Kiko Villalon points out. Vonderheide had owned “Lucky Lady” for one year, long enough to have replaced the corroded exhaust manifold and to have gotten rid of that dreadful splice on the exhaust shown above. Marine appliances corrode from within as well as on the outside. When in doubt, throw them out.

Did the marina have rules?

Either a breaker on the boat or on the dock cut off electricity to “Lucky Lady”, and Vonderheide probably turned on the generator so he could heat his boat. But generators should never be turned on at the dock, particularly in a marina with people living aboard and in a shed! Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but this is why most marinas have rules against running generators for prolonged periods of time.

Smoke detectors have trained us all

Unfortunately we have all been trained by smoke detectors that beep when their battery is about used up. This has caused us all to get in the habit of simply removing the battery to stop the annoying alarm – and this may be an inherent drawback of a “combo” unit. While we don’t presume to know more about such things than does Kiddie – doesn’t smoke rise and CO fall? Our guess is that Kiddie knows exactly what’s going on. We also bet that the “combo” unit is their best seller.

The unit Vonderheide installed was a household unit, and not marine.

Construction Details

Finally, there is that space between the engine ventilation tubes and the cabin sole. They should have been sealed tight by the builder – and maybe they were 25 years ago when the boat was built. Villalon says the “engine room was fairly well sealed” and the hatch to the engine room was well sealed, he says.