OCEAN CITY – For the second time this summer, a carbon monoxide (CO) leak caused an evacuation in Ocean City, and for the second time, it was revealed that there were no working CO detectors.
Three people were treated (two of them briefly hospitalized) for exposure to CO after a leak in the upper tier of the seven-floor, oceanfront Americana Hotel caused local authorities to evacuate an estimated 150 people on Tuesday morning and shut down the hotel, leaving a horde of guests essentially homeless while on holiday.
Ocean City Fire Department officials said that at around 9:20 a.m. on Tuesday, a 911 call was dispatched reporting sick persons at the Boardwalk hotel, and as responders got to the scene, they detected “high levels” of the carbon monoxide, a toxic colorless, odorless gas, said Ocean City Deputy Chief and Fire Marshal Sam Vallani.
“We have not determined the cause of the leak and have called for review/inspection of the hotels LP gas-burning equipment by a third party mechanical inspector,” said Vallani on Wednesday. “The hotel had 91 of 94 rooms occupied, but we don’t know how many total people were in the building.”
Councilman Doug Cymek, who was in the area for a meeting, followed the first EMS responders on foot to the scene after they sped by him with sirens blaring that morning.
“I got to the scene as they were walking the first woman out of there, and I’ve never seen a person under the influence of carbon monoxide, but I will tell you that it was scary because she couldn’t even stand on her own,” said Cymek. “I later walked around that property and it was absolutely deplorable.”
Ocean City Police spokesperson Jessica King said that the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association and the town’s visitor center handled the task of finding the displaced tourists a place to sleep on Tuesday night.
Event Planner Amy Tingle, who was filling in for the vacationing Executive Director Susan Jones, said that 19 of the displaced Americana guests were placed in other hotels throughout town.
“I know some of the guests were at the end of their stay and some probably just went home,” said Tingle, “but for those who were at the beginning of their stay, or simply those who came to us for help, we found them some rooms at other hotels.”
Tingle said that she had received reports that the building’s owner, Sal Rinaldi, had been contacted late Tuesday afternoon and allegedly was in the process of refunding some of the guests’ money for their stay at the shut down hotel.
Rinaldi, however, emphatically gave The Dispatch a “no comment” on whether he had refunded his guests’ money and to why his hotel was in violation of the town’s 2007 law requiring all hotels to have working carbon monoxide detectors. He hung up on a reporter twice on Wednesday morning.
Villani said that the hotel’s LP gas-burning equipment had not been ruled out as a potential factor in the incident but was unable to say for sure pending the investigation.
Determination of the origin of the leak may take longer than usual as the Fire Marshal’s Office is reportedly finding “so many possibilities” to choose from as the origin of the leak, according to Cymek.
“I’ve heard reports of guests having headaches all weekend long who were staying at the Americana, and it made me very unsettled to see what I saw when I was there on Tuesday,” said Cymek. “We have to stop these horror stories because it’s getting ridiculous.”
Another odd factor about the leak, however, was that it was found on the top three floors of the building as opposed to the June 11 carbon monoxide leak at the El Capitan condominium building, which was secluded to the first floor of the building, as per a leak in the basement water heater for the building’s pool.
“It appears that the CO may have taken the least point of resistance,” explained Villani. “Some hazmat books have CO heavier than air and some lighter than air, most having the specific gravity less than one making it lighter than air.”
In June, the El Capitan on 4th Street had a late night CO leak that sent a family of six to the hospital, causing town officials to raise a proverbial eyebrow of concern after it was found that the building didn’t have working CO detectors as required by town law.
After the tragic death of a Pennsylvania man and his 10-year-old-daughter in 2006 due to carbon monoxide exposure at the Days Inn hotel in Ocean City, the town passed an ordinance in February of 2007 that would require CO detectors in all “multi-family dwelling units” and in any building, which had any sort of fuel burning equipment, by February 2009.
As in the case of the El Capitan, which had a heated pool and a first-floor restaurant, which would constitute the necessity for detectors, the Americana also had a heated pool and a first-floor restaurant in addition to being classified as a “multi-family dwelling unit.”
City Solicitor Guy Ayres said in June after the El Capitan CO leak that the ordinance officially took effect Feb. 5 of this year after a 24-month grace period to allow businesses to come into compliance with the town’s new law.
Ayres also said that the property owner faces fines of up to $1,000 per day if found to be in violation.
The El Capitan was fined for being in violation of the town’s code in the amount of $2,000, according to Villani, who added the Americana would also be facing fines in the future.
City Council members took umbrage with the news of a second CO leak this season, and asked for Villani to come to City Hall at the next City Council work session on Sept. 1 to refresh their memories concerning the law and to find better ways to enforce it.
City Manager Dennis Dare said that the word has been put out by the Fire Marshal’s Office in a number of ways, outlining a June 19 memo from Villani listing the things the office had done to get the word out to the public concerning the CO ordinance.
“They’ve accomplished all the things on the list they set out to do and informed everyone via press releases, contacted all property managers and system installers and done a lot of public outreach to advise people of the requirements,” said Dare. “On Monday, they will begin a three-block survey to see what the compliance is on that block, and it will tell us something about how the public is following the law.”
Cymek said he wanted to “accelerate” the process in making sure that people had followed the law and installed the CO detectors.
After two leaks in one summer, perhaps some guests of Ocean City will start taking matters into their own hands and bringing their own CO detectors to town with them, like Councilwoman Mary Knight does when on vacation.
“We always remember to take ours, no matter where we go,” said Knight. “It just makes us feel a little bit more safe.”
It appears, however, that the town could take the hard line and make an example out of the Americana hotel in hopes of avoiding another carbon monoxide scare in a resort hotel.
“We can’t have any more incidents in town like this, and it is incumbent on us to get that message out there, so I would guess that the Americana is going to be sent a very strong message,” said Dare.