Apartment dweller saves lives after a silent, odorless killer seeps into her building

On Mar. 28, Adrienne Tillman was curled up in her covers watching Parenthood on Hulu when she began to feel woozy. She sat up in bed, and her legs began to twitch. She felt the urge to throw up. Tillman, 44, had an inkling that something bad was happening, and her instinct turned out to be right. She was being slowly, silently poisoned.

She wasn't the only one. A dozen other residents of 230 Central Ave., a well-kept, three-story apartment building on a tree-lined street in the Haight, were also inhaling carbon monoxide. Once inside their bodies, it was binding with the proteins that were supposed to carry oxygen to their brains. If the exposure lasted too long, they would all suffocate.

One man downstairs from Tillman had it the worst. He was awake and vomiting, but too weak to get to his phone. Many others were being poisoned by the deadly gas in their sleep.

There was no alarm to inform them that their lives were in danger, because in 2008, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have made carbon monoxide detectors mandatory in every at-risk home. He apparently was unconvinced that the devices are necessary or reliable.

Although their effectiveness is up for debate, CO detectors are mandated by law in more than 20 states. Carbon monoxide poisoning kills about 500 people in the United States every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

No detectors meant that if the building residents were to be saved, somebody would have to figure out what was going on. That person would also need to be able to call for help.

Tillman was slipping into disorientation, but remembered seeing a sign on her apartment door about repairs in the building. She also remembered a weird, steamy scent in the lobby when she had come in that night. She now wondered whether it could be carbon monoxide.

She rushed to the bathroom and threw up three times, then dragged herself to the window and stuck her head out to get fresh air. Feeling slightly better after a while, she sat down at her computer, pulled up Google, and typed “carbon monoxide poisoning.”

Tillman's correct self-diagnosis is uncommon, to say the least. Even San Francisco emergency responders have missed the clues of carbon monoxide poisoning.

In January 2008, the failure of firefighters to immediately identify a carbon monoxide leak at a five-story building at 916 Geary may have resulted in the death of 78-year-old Eddy Choy-Santos.

Firefighters had responded to a 911 call from another resident who had complained of shortness of breath. But they apparently didn't recognize that he was suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, even though an alarm voluntarily installed by a resident had gone off on the fourth floor. Thirty minutes later, someone else called 911 from the building. When firefighters returned, Choy-Santos was dead.

Reading the symptoms, Tillman still didn't realize she was in a life-or-death situation. Headache, dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, confusion, vomiting, and drowsiness — those matched hers exactly, and the drowsiness part was becoming a problem.

She scanned the screen, which reinforced what she already knew. She needed to leave the building. But in her attempt to get out of her apartment, she passed out on the floor.That could have been it for Tillman and for the dozen others in various stages of sickness. She has no idea how long she was unconscious, but she knows this much: She woke up needing to puke again. It went all over her pajamas and onto the floor.

After that, Tillman was able to get out through a third-floor exit at the back of the building. She sat at the top of the stairway, wondering what to do, until she heard her next-door neighbor returning home from a late Muni shift. Hoping to change out of her vomit-strewn pajamas, she decided that it might be safe to re-enter her home.

When she got to her apartment door, Tillman began to fumble with her keys, then collapsed. Being re-exposed to carbon monoxide can immediately bring back the symptoms.

She crawled to her neighbor's door and yelled for him to call 911. He helped her get downstairs to meet the firefighters and explain why she believed everyone in the building might be in danger.

But when they arrived, things didn't go the way she hoped. Tillman says her story was met with skepticism. One firefighter told her that if she smelled something strange, it probably wasn't carbon monoxide, which is odorless, colorless, and tasteless. Another took a reading of the levels of carbon monoxide in the lobby, and detected none. Tillman remembers him coming back to ask more questions, but felt he was treating her like she was nuts. “I was so mad,” she said. She's not sure how much time went by before somebody suggested a CO reading in her apartment on the third floor.

SFFD spokeswoman Lieutenant Mindy Talmadge said she was unaware of Tillman's story, but said that the crew responded “expeditiously and correctly.” San Francisco firefighters, who have handled 23 carbon monoxide incidents in the last year, “are fully trained on CO monitoring and recognition of a possible CO leak.”

As it turned out, readings in other areas of the building had reached life-threatening levels, according to the incident report. The residents of 230 Central were roused and evacuated in their nightclothes. One woman said that although she was normally a light sleeper, the firefighters had to enter her apartment to awaken her. It was one of the scariest moments of her life, she said.

Thirteen people were taken in ambulances to several hospitals, where they were tested. At Kaiser Permanente, Tillman learned her blood contained .19 ppm (parts per million) of carbon monoxide, a level that could kill a person in two hours. She heard that the man who lived below her had .26 ppm, which can kill somebody in 30 minutes.

At the hospitals, some of the victims received oxygen through face masks. At one point during Tillman's treatment, she says a doctor approached her. “You saved all those people's lives,” she bashfully recounts him saying.

Last Wednesday evening, Tillman came downstairs in pink Pumas, a green windbreaker, and square-framed glasses. Her headache was finally gone, she said, and she's been sleeping in her apartment again — with the windows open — even though her mom advised her to stay with a friend.

No one else at 230 Central agreed to be interviewed on the record, including building manager Alex Williams, who explained through the building's intercom that he had nothing to say about the incident. According to the report, a faulty vent in the boiler room exposed residents to the gas, which is produced during combustion. When the boiler was shut off, the carbon monoxide in the apartment units dissipated.

Although she immediately went out and purchased a carbon monoxide detector, Tillman has been waking in the middle of the night, believing she can smell gas. “It's terrifying,” she said.

Another bill that would mandate carbon monoxide detectors in homes is making its way through the California Legislature.

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