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Relatives of KCK carbon monoxide victims hope others learn from tragedy

Updated: 2013-02-28T05:21:24Z

By TONY RIZZO

The Kansas City Star

It’s called the silent killer.

And on Tuesday in Kansas City, Kan., carbon monoxide apparently took the lives of a Kansas City, Kan., woman and her brother.

“Deadly,” Deputy Fire Chief Craig Duke said of the gas level measured by firefighters when they arrived at the home in the 5100 block of Kimball Avenue.

They found a gasoline-powered generator running in the home’s basement garage, Duke said.

Relatives of 69-year-old Alice Oropeza and her 58-year-old brother, Nick Oropeza, said Wednesday they hoped the tragedy could serve as a “valuable lesson” about the danger of using a generator improperly.

“God willing, it can prevent this from happening to someone else,” said their brother, Steve Oropeza.

The neighborhood lost power because of Tuesday’s heavy snowfall. Family members who went to check on the siblings called emergency responders to the home.

Two dogs also were found dead inside the single-family structure. A third dog rushed by a nephew to a veterinarian died later, family members said.

“She loved those little dogs,” said Evelyn McKinney, a neighbor of Alice Oropeza.

McKinney had known Oropeza since moving onto the block about a decade ago.

“She was a sweet lady,” McKinney said.

Alice Oropeza was the oldest of 13 siblings who grew up in Kansas City, Kan., her brother said. A graduate of Argentine High School, she retired after working about 30 years for Willamette Industries.

As the oldest, she “pretty well raised all of us,” Steve Oropeza said.

“She was the rock of our family,” he said.

Their brother Nick was an accountant who worked for Pullman Place Family Restaurant in Leavenworth.

“He was a real good guy,” said co-owner Scott Lloyd. “He was free-spirited and had a lot of friends around the country.”

Nick Oropeza was smart and multitalented, Lloyd said.

“He rebuilt car engines. He did woodworking. He could do almost anything,” he said.

Lloyd said he spoke on the phone to Nick Oropeza about 8:30 a.m. Tuesday and he mentioned that his power was out, but he had a generator that he had gassed up the night before.

His friend seemed too smart to run a generator in an enclosed place like a garage, according to Lloyd.

“It doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Colorless and odorless, carbon monoxide is produced by the burning of fuels such as gasoline, natural gas, propane, wood and coal.

Nearly 500 deaths and 15,000 emergency room visits annually are attributed to unintentional, non-fire-related carbon monoxide exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Symptoms of exposure include headache, nausea, lightheadedness, confusion and disorientation. Anyone experiencing such symptoms should get outside immediately, Duke said.

“Get into fresh air,” he said. “And call 911.”

Every residence should be equipped with carbon monoxide detectors, especially on lower levels because the gas is heavier than air, according to Duke.

Generators, like the one found at the house Tuesday, never should be run indoors, he said. They should be at least 20 feet from the building, “and they should be nowhere near open doors or windows,” he said.

One of the firefighters who responded to the Tuesday incident suffered an elevated level of carbon monoxide and was treated at the scene before returning to duty.

In addition to generators, cars left running in a garage, faulty furnaces and improperly vented gas appliances are common culprits of carbon monoxide exposure.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, vents for dryers, furnaces, stoves and fireplaces should be checked after snow storms to make sure they are not blocked by snow.

Vehicles started in a garage should be moved outside immediately if left running to warm up.

Gas or charcoal grills, which also can produce carbon monoxide, never should be used indoors, the association said.

To reach Tony Rizzo, call 816-234-4435 or send email to trizzo@kcstar.com.

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