Saturday, December 14, 2013

When death checks in, who's paying attention?

Last June, North Carolina’s top public health official talked tough about authorities’ failure to protect three guests killed by carbon monoxide poisoning at a Boone hotel.

“These deaths were a tragedy that should have never happened,” said Aldona Wos, chief of the Department of Health and Human Services. ”I have instructed my staff to work with local officials to identify measures to ensure tragedies like this never happen again.”

That was six months ago. Incredibly, Wos has said nothing about the deaths since and has repeatedly refused Observer requests for interviews.

And in a strange twist, her office in August issued a brief statement saying, in part: “Based on our review of the facts, we do not believe that any state employee erred in performing their responsibilities.”

I urge you to read our in-depth report today on the deaths of these three guests. Then decide for yourself. Is the state’s standard for meeting its responsibilities high enough for you and your family?

Shirley Mae Jenkins, 72, and her husband, Daryl Jenkins, 73, died mysteriously in Room 225 at the Best Western Plus Blue Ridge Plaza. There was no evidence of foul play.

But the medical examiner assigned to investigate did not visit the death scene. The state didn’t require it.

When the medical examiner submitted samples to a state lab for toxicology tests, he left blank a portion of the form that asks about circumstances surrounding the deaths.

Details like, this person died in a hotel room. Oh, and another person died in the same room at the same time.

Again, the state didn’t require him to mention those details.

Those samples then sat in a lab in Raleigh for 40 days for a test for carbon monoxide poisoning that takes 15 minutes.

And once the samples did test positive for carbon monoxide, no one took the necessary steps to save 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams.

Urgency was not part of the state’s protocol.

Jeffrey checked into Room 225 with his mother, Jeannie Williams, seven days after the state identified carbon monoxide as the Jenkinses’ killer. Jeffrey died and Jeannie was severely injured.

Why didn’t officials act more responsibly? And why should you believe they will next time?

You should also know this. The state Medical Examiner’s Office, which reports to Wos, obstructed The Observer for months in its efforts to get public records that were important for this story.

Those record requests went unfilled despite certified letters sent to both Wos and the state’s chief medical examiner, Deborah Radisch. Only through an attorney and a threat of a lawsuit were we able to secure the documents.

This is hardly behavior befitting people who claim to be public servants, looking after the public’s safety.

In today’s stories, an expert says it is a mistake for a medical examiner not to go to the scene of a mysterious death. Another expert says that when two people die in the same enclosed space, you should immediately suspect an environmental cause. Still another says he never spends a night in a hotel without taking along a carbon monoxide detector.

Sadly, all of this advice comes from authorities outside of our state. Inside, where this tragedy took three precious lives, we’ve heard little about how they are improving a system that is supposed to prevent public health hazards.

Our staff continues to investigate the important work of medical examiners in North Carolina. We invite your help. If you have a question or concern about a specific death investigation, please let us hear from you.

As a help, we’ve posted on a death investigation database that is public record. It is searchable by name and will indicate whether the medical examiner viewed the body in a specific case.

No one can bring back those who were lost, but we dare not ignore the lessons left behind for the living.


Anonymous said...

Rick: Terrific work by The Observer.
This is what a newspaper should be.
Ben Cason