NANTUCKET — A tidy gray colonial near Nantucket Memorial Airport was the scene of a near tragedy Saturday after 11 people, including three children, were poisoned overnight by carbon monoxide gas.
The victims were rushed to Nantucket Cottage Hospital and six were airlifted to Massachusetts General Hospital, said Marty Ray, a spokesman at the Boston hospital.
As of 9 p.m. Saturday, three of the Massachusetts General patients had been discharged and the other three were in good condition, Ray said.
It could have been much worse, and nearly was, state Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said.
Two of the victims appeared near death at first, but "they were handled very professionally at the local hospital" and their conditions have improved, Coan said.
"It was a serious event, no question about it," Nantucket Fire Chief Mark McDougall said. "It could have been a whole house full of dead people."
In addition to the 11 people being treated from the home, four police officers and a firefighter were also evaluated for carbon monoxide poisoning at the hospital, Nantucket Cottage Hospital spokesman Bill Ferrall said.
By late afternoon Saturday, the only hint of the frightening event at 40 Macys Lane was the yellow police tape strung across some bushes and the fact nearly every window of the two-storey house was wide open to the cold April winds.
A police officer in a patrol car guarded the house.
The incident started unfolding shortly after 9 a.m. Saturday, when the island's emergency services began getting multiple calls from residents who complained of feeling extremely ill, Coan said.
Gary Roy, who lives across the street, said he saw nine people brought out on stretchers. They appeared to be conscious and some were given oxygen, he said. Some of the other sickened residents were able to walk on their own, Roy said.
A faulty gas-fired furnace in the basement of the Macys Lane home was the cause of the crisis, Coan said.
"This is a reminder why it is so important to have working carbon monoxide detectors," he said. "The CO detectors in the home did not have functioning batteries and 11 people came close to death."
The five sickest residents were staying in the basement apartment, located closest to the gas-fired furnace, Coan said. Officials believe the heater, which was recently repaired, is the source of the carbon monoxide, he said.
Roy said he saw a vehicle from a local gas company at the house on Friday.
State law requires carbon monoxide detectors in all homes with potential sources of carbon monoxide. Detectors must be installed on every level of a home, within 10 feet of each sleeping area, and in habitable portions of basements and attics.
Carbon monoxide is called the silent killer. It is invisible, has no smell or taste, and puts its victims into a deep sleep from which they often do not awake, Coan said. Early signs of carbon monoxide poisoning include nausea, headaches and other flu-like symptoms.
Saturday's crisis taxed Nantucket Cottage Hospital, which only has 19 beds and an emergency department typically only staffed with four to five employees on an off-season weekend, Ferrall said.
The hospital relied on its emergency plan to bring in up to 20 extra staffers, the hospital spokesman said. He said he's been on the island 20 years and doesn't know of any mass casualty event like this happening before. "It's a big deal," Ferrall said.
Three of the stricken residents were treated and released at the Nantucket hospital, with two people held overnight for observation, Ferrall said.
All three of Nantucket's available ambulances were called into duty, as first responders discovered more and more people inside the home. "There were a lot of beds in there and a lot of people," McDougall said.
The residents in the home speak mostly Spanish, according to neighbor Kenny Haughton. "It's really sad," he said.
Another neighbor who did not want to be named in this report said it appeared 15 people live in the home.
McDougall said carbon monoxide levels inside the basement of the home were recorded at 380 parts per million, well in excess of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's permissible exposure limit of 50 ppm. Average levels in homes without gas stoves typically range from 0.5 ppm to 5 ppm.
One part per million is equivalent to 1 cent in $10,000.
The owner of the home, Marcos Tejada, arrived at the scene as the last of the victims were being transported to the hospital, and he was talking to police officers on the front lawn. In a brief interview, Tejada said it was his family members inside the home who had been sickened, but he was unsure how many people and was trying to get more information from the police.
The incident is being jointly investigated by the Nantucket Police Department, the Nantucket Fire Department, and state police investigators assigned to work with Coan and the Cape and Islands District Attorney's Office.
Other agencies including the Nantucket Building Department and the Code Compliance Unit of the Office of the State Fire Marshal are assisting in the investigation.
Material from The Inquirer and Mirror was used in this report.