Chetek, WI – Frank, 81, and Catherine, 85, of Illinois were vacationing in Chetek in August 2002. The couple stayed at Northland Resort, owned at the time by Eugene and Darlene Ehlinger. The Heckenbergers had stayed at the resort many times, but had no idea this trip would be their last.
The Hekenbergers were staying in a cabin known as the “Birch” at the resort. The couple had a history of being early risers, usually up by 7 or 8 a.m. When owner Eugene Ehlinger noticed it was around 12 p.m. and he had not seen the Hekenbergers, he went to check on them. According to the Barron County Medical Examiner’s report, it was at that time Ehlinger found the body of Frank Hekenberger in the kitchen/living area, after which he “left immediately and dialed 911.”
Emergency personnel arrived on the scene and had to vent the cabin 10-15 minutes before being able to enter, due to high levels of carbon monoxide and smoke. The initial carbon monoxide readings taken by the Chetek Fire Department registered 248 parts per million (ppm), almost one-and-a-half times what is considered a lethal level. According to the examiner’s report, the cause of death for both Frank and Catherine Hekenberger was ruled as “asphyxiation due to carbon monoxide poisoning.”
The news shook the entire resort community. The frequent question was asked, “How could this have happened?”
According to court documents, the cabin had an older furnace with a pipe vented up through the attic to the outside. According to expert testimony, it was clear the furnace system had numerous defects, including a corroded vent pipe and a clogged chimney opening-defects that caused the system to malfunction and led to the death of the Hekenbergers.
After a review of the facts and testimony, the jury returned a verdict in the case Sept. 16, finding both the Ehlingers (20 percent of the negligence) and Ridgeland Chetek Cooperative (80 percent) to be negligent in the case. The jury awarded $169,044.73 to the estates of Frank and Catherine Hekenberger. The four adult children bringing the suit were awarded $300,000 for the loss of society and companionship of their parents. But as anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one knows, no amount of money compensates for the loss.
A lesson learned?
When asked about the case, Chetek Fire Chief Joe Atwood shakes his head. This is the only time something like this has happened since he has been in the department, but it is one time too many in his eyes.
“I do fire inspections for a reason,” says Atwood. “When an inspector comes to your property or business and makes a suggestion, you should take it seriously.”
Atwood remembers telling Ehlinger, like many other resort owners, that he should think about installing carbon monoxide detectors. Since it is not required by law, Ehlinger, like many other citizens, did not heed the advice. It’s a decision Atwood has seen too many times.
“Why wouldn’t you put one in?” says Atwood. “For $30 you can rest at night knowing that if there is a problem, the alarm will go off and everyone can get out.”
Atwood also shakes his head when he talks about inspections he has completed since the tragedy.”I thought for sure I would go into the resorts and owners would say, ‘Hey, I’ve got carbon monoxide detectors now,'” says Atwood. “It just hasn’t happened. I just don’t understand it.”
Atwood relates in his estimation, 30 percent of the resorts are taking all of the precautions to keep visitors safe-meaning 70 percent could do more to ensure guests staying at their resorts have a safe experience. The number one problem, according to Atwood, is old equipment.
Many of the furnaces are old furnaces that are not forced-air, according to Atwood. When the weather cools off and people start turning those old furnaces on after they have been sitting idle for six months the results can be dangerous.
Atwood says other major problems he encounters include old electrical work and a lack of general knowledge of fire safety.
Resort owners are making the grade in some areas. Atwood says most of the owners do well on keeping smoke detectors and fire extinguishers functional and up-to-date. He says they are also very good about burning, making sure the firepits are safe.
Yet Atwood knows it only takes one mistake to cause pain for all parties involved.”It’s really too bad,” says Atwood. “[former owner] Gene [Ehlinger] and his wife are good people, and it could have been avoided.”
Homeowners need to be vigilant as well.Atwood knows resorts are not the only places with problems when it comes to fire safety. Many residential homes still do not have carbon monoxide detectors, and in some cases smoke detectors and fire extinguishers are absent or not functioning properly.
Atwood wants residents to know fire safety checklists are available from the Chetek Fire Department. Homeowners should use the checklists regularly to inspect their homes for any hazardous conditions.
Noel Gilliland, senior safety consultant with Sentry Insurance, says another resource to help you determine your home’s fire safety is your insurance company.
“There are whole separate personnel divisions that have resources available for individual risk management,” says Gilliland. “Check with your independent insurance agent to see what’s available.”
An area in which homeowners throughout the country consistently fail is utilizing carbon monoxide detectors.
The Consumer Products Safety Commission recommends carbon monoxide detectors should be placed on each level of the dwelling; at minimum a single detector should be placed on each sleeping floor with an additional detector in the area of any major gas burning appliance.
Carbon monoxide is a major issue, due to its properties. The gas is odorless, colorless and tasteless, causing it to be known as “the silent killer.” The danger of carbon monoxide is its attraction to hemoglobin in the bloodstream. When breathed in, carbon monoxide bonds with the hemoglobin in the blood, displacing the oxygen which cells need to function. When carbon monoxide (CO) is present in the air, it rapidly accumulates in the blood, forming a toxic compound known as carboxyhemoglobin (COHb). COHb causes symptoms similar to the flu, such as headaches, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, loss of consciousness and eventually death can result.
Atwood says a common misconception about carbon monoxide is it takes maximum exposure to the gas before it is lethal.The biggest problem with carbon monoxide,” says Atwood, “is that once you are exposed to it [carbon monoxide], you are more sensitive to its effects in the future. It never leaves your body.”
Atwood adds that people may carry on for long periods of time, thinking they just have a headache or the flu. Eventually, they can become overcome with the gas and lose consciousness and may eventually suffer brain damage or even death.
“I’ve breathed it [carbon monoxide] in before, and now I’ve noticed I am much more sensitive to it,” says Atwood. “You have to be careful because it can sneak up on you so quickly, and before you know it, it’s too late.”