Charlotte Observer: Tragedy that didn’t need to happen

June 14, 2013 

The more information comes out, the more it appears that passing the buck and saving a buck are behind the death of an innocent 11-year-old boy in Boone recently.

Jeffrey Williams should be alive today, and probably would be if any one of a number of people and organizations showed the slightest bit of common sense. People need to be held accountable, and the legislature needs to make systemic changes to avoid creating future victims.

Jeffrey, who lived just southwest of Rock Hill, was in the mountains with his mother to visit his sister at a summer science camp. They stayed at a Best Western in room 225 – the same room where a married couple died two months before.

Daryl Jenkins, 73, and Shirley Jenkins, 72, were found dead in the room in April. There was no sign of violence. Any thinking person would consider carbon monoxide poisoning to be one possible explanation, particularly with an indoor natural gas pool heater right below the room. Yet somehow authorities never announced that as the cause of death until after Jeffrey was found dead Saturday.

Among those who have a lot of questions to answer:

• Appalachian Hospitality Management, the hotel owners. They haven’t explained why they rented room 225 despite persisting questions about the April deaths. Police are seeking others who stayed in that room in the weeks before Jeffrey died of asphyxiation in it. The day after the Jenkinses’ deaths, with that mystery looming, the hotel booked a third-floor room for 10 girls celebrating a birthday party two days later. All the girls got sick. The mother in charge notified the hotel but says management did nothing about it.

• The Watauga County medical examiner’s office and the state’s chief medical examiner, Deborah Radisch. Though the Jenkinses’ deaths were clearly suspicious, the medical examiner did not go to the death scene. And the toxicology report that found they died of carbon monoxide poisoning came back months later, only after Jeffrey died – even though experts across the nation say such determinations can be made in 15 minutes. N.C. medical examiners fail to go to the death scene 91 percent of the time (and Watauga’s four volunteers don’t go 94 percent of the time), even though experts say doing so is vital to determining the cause of mysterious deaths.

• The Boone Fire Department. The department responded to the call on the April deaths, but did not check the room’s carbon monoxide levels. Fire Chief Jimmy Isaacs told the Observer the state medical examiner’s office should have told his department to do so. Isaacs, thankfully, does acknowledge the need for policy changes; he says, for instance, that he is considering putting carbon monoxide detectors on all fire engines.

• The Legislature. It passed a law that led to carbon monoxide detectors being required in new homes and many older homes, but not in hotels. That saves the hotel industry about $30 per detector. The General Assembly also fails to fund a medical examiner system that could follow national best practices, including paying and certifying full-time medical examiners.

The hotel owners can say no one told them to close the room. The Boone Fire Department can say no one told them to check the carbon monoxide levels. The medical examiners can say no one gave them enough money to do the job the way it should be done. Everyone can pass the buck to someone else. Except little Jeffrey Williams. He was left to pay the price.

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