Greeley, CO – Sherrie Peif, Greley Tribune

As the smell of incense filled the air and 3-year-old Jaden Salazar ran around the house asking for cookies, it was all Jaden’s mom Katy Salazar could do just to choke back tears.

Salazar was reliving the night her family came near death from something she had never given a second thought to — carbon monoxide poisoning.

With winter knocking on the door, residents are turning up the furnaces. But many of those, like the Salazar family’s, are not working properly, in some cases leading to death.

Salazar and Jaden, along with Salazar’s 11-year-old son, Mario Munoz, and 76-year-old grandmother, Maria Salazar, had all began to feel ill. First it was headaches, then stomach cramps and eventually nausea. But they continued to dismiss it as the flu. Salazar’s co-workers at the Department of Motor Vehicles wouldn’t dismiss it, though, when she came to work at the end of September with all the symptoms of the silent killer.

They convinced her go home herself to check on her family that was getting sicker every day. Even the family’s 1-year-old toy Chihuahua, Angel, wasn’t acting like herself.

But Salazar stopped by her father’s house on the way to get advice. He convinced her to call Atmos Energy. What they told her changed her life, she said.

“They put a red tag on my furnace and shut it off,” Salazar said through her tears. “Then they evacuated my house. I should have listened earlier to what everyone was saying.”

But again she hesitated when co-workers urged her to go to the hospital.

Weak and lethargic, she couldn’t bear to drive from their home in La Salle. Those friends persisted. And eventually the family spent hours at North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley recovering.

“It was kind of boring,” Mario said. “But I was pretty scared. Taking shots and sucking in oxygen, I thought something really bad would happen to us — like we would die.”

But the peril wasn’t over. Salazar learned she had three cracks and a plugged exchange — and no money to replace the 30-year-old equipment that nearly killed her family.

“We used two space heaters to heat the house for a couple of weeks,” she said.

Mario said the temperatures were dropping more and more every night, and he was really beginning to worry about his mom.

“If I would have had the money, I would have bought the furnace for her,” the North Valley Middle School student said.

Salazar tried everything to round up the nearly $2,000 a new furnace would cost, but the doors kept closing.

“They all wanted their money upfront,” she said. “And you can’t blame them, but for a single mom that’s a lot.”

Finally, co-workers came to her rescue again with an application for the Tribune Community Crisis Fund, a fund set up by the Tribune to help people in an emergency. Two weeks later, the family, including Angel, was ready for winter.

“When they called at work to tell me I had gotten the assistance, I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I started crying. All my co-workers were crying. They are just such wonderful people. I don’t know what we would have done without them.”

Protect your family from carbon monoxide

According to the Centers for Disease Control, carbon monoxide is the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in America. Its colorless, odorless and tasteless presence can sneak up on a family overnight. In 2003, the Union Colony Fire/Rescue Authority responded to 89 carbon monoxide-related incidents. So far in 2004, Union Colony has responded to 57. Carbon monoxide kills about 165 people each year and sends another 10,000 to emergency rooms for treatment.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headaches, dizziness, disorientation, nausea and fatigue. The emission can come from several sources, such as gas-fired appliances, charcoal grills, motor vehicles and wood-burning furnaces or fireplaces.

Dale Lyman, public information officer for Union Colony, has several tips on how to protect yourself from carbon monoxide poisoning:

* Install at least one UL-listed carbon monoxide alarm with an audible warning signal near the sleeping areas and outside individual bedrooms. Carbon monoxide alarms measure levels of the gas over time and are designed to sound an alarm before an average healthy adult would experience symptoms.

* Have a qualified professional check all fuel-burning appliances, furnace, venting and chimney systems at least once a year.

* Never use your range or oven to help heat your home and never use a charcoal grill or hibachi in your home or garage.

* Never keep a car running in a garage. Even if the garage doors are open, normal circulation will not provide enough fresh air to reliably prevent a dangerous buildup of carbon monoxide.

* When purchasing an existing home, have a qualified technician evaluate the integrity of the heating and cooking systems as well as the sealed spaces between the garage and house.

* Replace carbon monoxide alarms every five years to benefit from the latest technology and upgrades.