By Theresa Vargas and Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 20, 2007
BLACKSBURG, Va., Aug. 19 -- Twenty three people, most or all of them Virginia Tech students, were taken to hospitals Sunday from an off-campus apartment house after showing signs of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Police said four of the five who were most seriously affected were Tech students from the Washington region, three from Northern Virginia and one from Potomac.
The incident, one day before the start of classes, came as students returned to a campus marked by the killings of 32 students and faculty members in April.
Witnesses said the five monoxide victims who remained hospitalized Sunday night appeared to be unconscious or semiconscious when they were pulled Sunday morning from an apartment in a privately owned building here.
Two of those from Northern Virginia, Kirstin Julia of Ashburn and Kirsten W. Halik of Vienna, were listed in critical condition at the University of Virginia hospital in Charlottesville.
Three other 19-year-olds were listed in stable condition at the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. They were identified as Elizabeth A. Bergin of Ashburn, Carolyn Ann Dorman of Potomac and Nichole M. Howarth of Chesterfield, Va.
The incident occurred shortly before 10,000 people attended the dedication on campus of a memorial to the victims of the April shootings.
"It's a community that has gone through a tremendous amount of tragedy in recent months, and we certainly don't need to experience any more of it," a university spokesman said.
The monoxide incident occurred at the Collegiate Suites, an apartment development that lists itself as a "leisurely bike ride from" the campus to which many students returned this weekend.
A woman who answered a telephone at the complex's office declined to comment Sunday night.
Two students who spent Saturday night in an apartment there said they awoke feeling ill.
Britnye Kurty said she awoke in her third-floor apartment about 10:30 a.m. to make certain to be on time for the dedication ceremony.
But Kurty, who is from Rockville, said she realized quickly that she "was lightheaded and nauseous."
In addition, she said, everyone else in her apartment -- eight people, some of them relatives who were visiting -- "woke up with a headache."
Kurty said she suspected the water heater in her apartment, which she said runs on gas. She said she had turned on the gas Saturday night after arriving at the apartment.
She called the utility company, she said, and an inspector quickly determined that the problem was carbon monoxide in the apartment directly below hers.
Carbon monoxide, which is produced by incomplete combustion, is a colorless and odorless gas that can be fatal in high concentrations.
Kurty said she and her roommate, Rachael Evans, joined others in alerting other residents.
She said that five occupants were pulled from the apartment below hers by rescuers and that all were unconscious or semiconscious.
She said the people from her apartment were taken to Montgomery Regional Hospital in Blacksburg, where they received oxygen for four hours before being released.
In all, authorities said, 18 of the 23 people were released Sunday after treatment at hospitals in the Blacksburg area.
Capt. Bruce Bradbery of the Blacksburg police department outlined a chain of circumstances that led to the buildup of monoxide in the women's apartment on the second floor.
He said preliminary investigation indicated that a malfunction in a device called a popoff valve caused hot water to drain from a water heater.
As a result, cold water kept flowing into the heater, causing it to operate nonstop.
At the same time, Bradbery said, a series of circumstances kept the apartment from venting the carbon monoxide that was created.
One of the circumstances, he said, was the closing of all four bedroom doors in the apartment.
Mark Owczarski, a Virginia Tech spokesman, said the university was doing all it could to help.
"We're hoping and praying that all will recover," he said. "We're keeping our fingers crossed."
Weil reported from Washington.