Danbury, CT – By Eugene Driscoll and Jaime Garzon

THE NEWS-TIMES — Four people were rushed to the hospital after being poisoned by carbon monoxide fumes at the Beaver Street apartments Wednesday.

A neighbor found four people sick and called 911 around 8:30 a.m. Confusion reigned at the scene when firefighters arrived minutes later.

A man was lying on the floor at the top of the stairs. A woman in her 60s, identified by neighbors as apartment owner Emilia Pena, was lying stricken on a bed.

The pair, along with two male victims who were not identified, told authorities they complained about an odor of gas for days. One resident reported having headache for days because of the odor.

However, air tests — coupled with the quartet’s disoriented behavior — quickly pointed to carbon monoxide as the culprit.

That comes as no big surprise at this time of year. The odorless gas kills 50 people a year in the state.

Carbon monoxide poisoning hospitalizes about 500 people each year in the state. It kills 2,000 people a year nationally and hospitalizes another 17,000.

The gas is generated in about 85 percent of the homes in the state. Danbury area fire marshals warned last month of a possible increase in carbon monoxide poisoning and fire emergencies, thanks to skyrocketing home heating prices.

Officials fear people will turn to less expensive, but much more dangerous, methods to heat their homes. Those methods include anything from the use of space heaters to leaving the kitchen stove open. “We haven’t seen it yet but we do have to be careful and use caution,” Danbury Fire Marshal Barry Rickert said.

In July, Connecticut became the fourth state to approve a law requiring carbon monoxide detectors in new houses. The law applies to houses built after Oct. 1, 2005.

“People should install CO detectors,” Rickert said. “They should check their heating appliances and prevent blockages in their chimneys and furnaces.”

In fact, Wednesday’s incident was caused by a bird’s nest that clogged a chimney, causing toxic gas from the boiler under the apartment to enter Emilia Pena’s apartment.

While the four victims were put in ambulances, firefighters searched for the gas smell — and quickly learned residents weren’t imagining it. A Yankee Gas crew discovered a leaky gas line outside the complex, Danbury Fire Chief Peter Siecienski said.

“There was also a separate issue going on there that could have been disastrous,” he said.

In fact, firefighters just extinguished a basement fire at another part of the federally subsidized Beaver Street complex Saturday.

Residents said they called Yankee Gas to complain about a gas odor coming from the basement. Yankee Gas employees checked it sometime in the last few days but did not find a leak.

“Apparently it depended on which direction the wind was blowing,” Siecienski said.

Yankee Gas spokesman Jeff Tilghman said a minor leak was found on a pipe outside the complex. “There were very minor leaks outside the building on a pipe that is past the meter,” Tilghman said.

Carbon monoxide kills by reducing the blood’s ability to carry oxygen. According the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s New England office, symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include dizziness, fatigue, nausea and irregular breathing.