Officials say improperly vented furnace led to man's death

MARIA ST.LOUIS-SANCHEZ Updated: November 2, 2012 at 12:00 am • Published: November 2, 2012

An apartment complex with a history of citations for dangerous appliances, an unplugged carbon monoxide detector and a cool day led to the death of 50-year-old Benedo Valdez on Oct. 7.

According to Colorado Springs Utilities and the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department, Valdez died after a 30-year-old improperly vented furnace pumped carbon monoxide into a nearby apartment, and the deadly gas settled in his apartment.

The 32-building complex called Vista Peak apartments, 1216 Potter Drive, has been cited 14 times in the last five years by Colorado Springs Utilities for having dangerous appliances that were required to be shut off until they were fixed. It’s a number that Steve Berry, a utilities spokesman, said was “high” for an apartment complex.

Nothing seemed unusual that Sunday morning, Oct. 7, at the complex, said Chantell Vigio, next door neighbor to Valdez. He and his roommates had been partying the night before, she said, noting that they were awake at 10:30 a.m. when she walked past their apartment, where the windows were open. The day, according to the National Weather Service was a cool one, with a nighttime low of 29 degrees. Vigio said that residents had only recently turned on their heat for the colder weather and hers wasn’t working.

She had something to eat and then went to take a nap because she felt sick. She was awoken by a firefighter knocking at her door. He told her that he was investigating carbon monoxide exposure in the building and asked to come inside.

“He walked in with a carbon monoxide detector and it started going off as soon as he came inside,” she said. “He said we had to get outside.”

Her carbon monoxide detector, plugged in just a few feet from her front door, was silent.

The firefighter asked about her neighbors, who she assumed were fine because she had heard them just a bit before. But when no one answered the door, the firefighter opened it.

Vigio looked in the apartment and saw one man foaming at the mouth sitting at a table. Valdez, the oldest of three or four roommates, was pronounced dead by firefighters. Another man, whose name Vigio didn’t know and it wasn’t released by the fire department, was taken to the hospital in critical condition. He was released from the hospital three days later and moved away, Vigio said. She said she wasn’t sure if anyone else was in the apartment at the time.

Firefighters that day said the carbon monoxide readings in the apartment were “extremely high.” The department has not released the findings of its hazardous materials inspection of the complex, calling it an “ongoing investigation.”

Whatever the reading, Vigio said, it was bad enough to effect the men in the 45 minutes since she had heard them talking.

She said the apartment manager told her later that the men had unplugged their carbon monoxide detector to plug in a small refrigerator.

“There was only one in the whole building that went off,” she said. “That neighbor called for help. If she hadn’t, I don’t know what would have happened.”

She said Valdez said was a nice man who immigrated from Mexico and had a daughter who lived in California. After he died, a sister from out of state hosted a memorial service for him in Colorado Springs and then took his body to Mexico for burial. Vigio’s family put flowers and votive candles outside the apartment as a small memorial.

No answers

As of Wednesday, Vigio hadn’t been told by property managers why the carbon monoxide had flooded the building.

“They said they’re still looking into it,” she said.

A woman at the complex front office who identified herself as “Daisy” said she couldn’t comment on the incident because of an ongoing investigation.

Vista Peak is owned by Connexion Asset Group, a Lakewood-based real estate investment firm that bought the 258-unit complex last year for $4.2 million. A message left for Peggy Ilenfeld, who is listed as a registered agent for the property, was not returned.

The complex is a known offender to Colorado Springs Utilities for having dangerous appliances, after the 14 red tag shut off notices since 2007.

In 2011, Utilities issued 518 red tag notices to its customers, said Kevin Perrigo, operations supervisor. He said the notices are issued when Utilities is alerted to a possibly dangerous appliance and an employee determines that it is so bad that it must be shut off until it’s repaired. Private homeowners can fix the problem themselves, but rental buildings must prove that a licensed contractor has fixed the appliance, Perrigo said.

Berry, citing privacy regulations, would not release specific information about the shut-off notices that had been issued to Vista Peak and would not say if the improperly-venting furnace had ever been red tagged.

Even if had been, the problem with the furnace on Oct. 7 appeared to be human-caused rather than mechanically-related, according to Utilities and Jack Arrington, the chief plumbing and mechanical inspector for the building department.

An investigation showed that someone had removed the door to a blower compartment. Without that door, the exhaust from the furnace was sucked into the heating vents of the vacant apartment above Valdez. The carbon monoxide then seeped down into his apartment, Arrington said.

The problem was magnified because someone had turned up the heat in the vacant apartment, thus causing more fumes to be vented inside. He said other people in the complex were lucky that they were not poisoned.

The problem is a dangerous one, Arrington said. Newer furnaces are built with an automatic switch so they can’t run with the blower compartment door open. The furnace in question, he said, was original to when the complex was built.

According to records from the El Paso County Assessor’s Office, the complex was completed in the late 60s and early 70s.

The complex installed two new furnaces the day Valdez died, according to building department records. Before then, Arrington said that certified contractors approved by the building department had not worked on that specific furnace.

Workers often not certified

Danny Rial who heads the Pikes Peak Mechanical Contractors Association and owns his own heating and air conditioning business, said a licensed contractor would never have removed the door to a furnace blower compartment.

“Every one of them would have known better,” he said. “If these building owners would get their maintenance people to classes to get the proper training, they wouldn’t be doing something stupid like this.”

He said that apartment complexes aren’t required to hire maintenance people who are certified to work on heating and air condition units. Since they aren’t required, many complexes in the city choose not to, he said.

Neither Arrington or Perrigo knew who had taken off the door to the blower compartment or why it had been removed. If the complex did not use a licensed technician on the furnace, there’s no way for the building department to punish anyone for what happened, Arrington said. The department could take away or threaten a license of a technician involved in such an incident. Without a license, his hands are tied, he said.

“I don’t have any recourse because I don’t have a licensed party to penalize,” he said. “That’s the way our system is set up.”

In similar cases, the people found responsible for the death are often sued in civil court, said Ken Shakeshaft, a local attorney whose firm specializes in carbon monoxide cases.

“The only way to really hold people accountable is the civil system,” he said. “Here’s a prime example of why you need regulations that work.”

Vigio said she wasn’t sure if her neighbor’s family would sue. His closest relatives live out of state, she said.

Shakeshaft said in some cases of gross neglect there’s a chance that local police or a district’s attorney’s office might become involved and investigate a carbon monoxide poisoning as a criminal manslaughter or negligence case. Neither Colorado Springs Police or the 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office reported to be investigating the case.

The death has shaken residents of the complex. On Wednesday, Sarah Smith was walking her kids to their apartment to get ready for their Halloween celebrations.

She hasn’t been told what killed Valdez, but said she assumed it was the furnace.

“That’s why I haven’t turned on the heat since then,” she said. “I make the kids use blankets. Lots of blankets.”

The Numbers
Number of responses by Colorado Springs Utilities
                                                            2011                    2012 (through October)    
Red tag notices:*                                      518                               246
Suspected gas leak:                                 4,893                            3,519
Suspected carbon monoxide leak:                1,850                            1,384
*Red tag: An appliance is considered so dangerous that the property owner is not supposed to use it until it is fixed. Rental owners are required to have the repaired appliances certified by a licensed technicians. Homeowners are allowed to do the work themselves. If the appliance is not fixed, Utilities has the authority to shut off gas to the property.

Contact Maria St. Louis-Sanchez: 636-0274

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