Searcy, AR – By Tim Bousquet, The Daily Citizen

A Searcy family was poisoned by carbon monoxide Thursday morning, victims of a leaky furnace.

“The firefighters said we’d probably be dead if we had been in the house another hour or two,” said Melissa Shoemaker, a Birch Street resident.

The Shoemakers lit the pilot light in their furnace earlier in the week in expectation of cold weather. They first noticed problems Wednesday morning, when Shoemaker woke up with a slight headache.

“I wasn’t feeling good, and I called my mother to help me take care of the baby,” she said. Shoemaker has two children, Remington, 5, and Brandon, 3 weeks old.

Wednesday night was the first cool night of the season, and the furnace’s main burner kicked in.

Shoemaker’s husband Ryan, a plumber, woke with the alarm clock at 6:40 a.m. Thursday, and complained of a headache. Remington also said his head hurt, and didn’t want to go to school.

“I said, ‘I bet it’s the heater,'” recalled Shoemaker Tuesday. “‘I bet it’s carbon monoxide. Let’s get out of the house!’ My husband put the kids in the car, and I grabbed the diaper bag and a few things, and called the fire department.”

Shoemaker’s instincts were correct: Firefighters found a lethally high carbon monoxide (CO) reading of 350 parts per million, and suggested that the family admit themselves to the hospital.

They drove to the White County Medical Center emergency room, where they were placed on oxygen masks for about three hours. After consultation with experts in Little Rock, doctors suggested the family be transported by ambulance to St. Vincent Hospital.

After evaluation in Little Rock, the Shoemakers were released in good health.

Obviously rattled by the experience, Shoemaker said the CO incident comes on top of already difficult times.

“Brandon was five weeks premature, and I had a C-section,” she said. “We weren’t sure if he would make it, or if I would make it. This is all kind of scary.”

In the end, however, everything turned out okay. The leak was traced to rusted heat exchange unit, and gas lines have been capped pending repair. Meanwhile, Shoemaker has outfitted the house with multiple CO detectors.

That, said Fire Marshal Phil Watkins, is a very good idea.

“I just bought a combination carbon monoxide and smoke detector for $24 for someone,” said Watkins. “That’s cheap insurance for your family.”

Searcy firefighters respond to CO calls two or three times a week through the winter, which is as often as they respond fire calls. Nationwide, CO poisoning kills at least 200 people annually.

Watkins called CO poisoning a “silent killer.”

“It’s odorless, colorless, and tasteless,” he said. “And it doesn’t just happen in old homes. We get calls to a houses less than a year old, and leaks happen in new appliances.

“I once responded to a call where a brand new stove was defective, and the baby was sitting in a high chair just a few feet away.”

In its early stage, CO poisoning can look like the flu, its victims having headaches and a flushed complexion.

“You go to bed at night and everyone’s fine, and when you wake up everyone is sick,” said Watkins. “That’s probably not bad mayonnaise.”

And CO poisoning can build up over a period of time, as victims are exposed to a leaky furnace at night, go off to their jobs during the day, and return night after night for another dose.

Watkins said investigators are now learning that many cases of CO poisoning are misdiagnosed as Lupus, and that CO poisoning is more widespread than once thought.

The Shoemakers’ poisoning, said Watkins, should prompt people to become more aware of the dangers of CO poisoning, and to take simple steps to prevent a strategy, including having appliances checked by a professional each year and purchasing a CO detector, which is available at hardware stores and general merchandise stores like Wal-Mart.