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Sewer gas may have killed KC woman

Updated: 2013-03-08T05:06:05Z

By CHRISTINE VENDEL

The Kansas City Star

Kansas City police believe disassembled plumbing under a kitchen sink may have led to the death of a 44-year-old woman in a rare case of sewer gas asphyxiation.

The victim, Bernice A. Weaver, was homeless and had been staying for about two months with a 56-year-old woman in her rented home in the 300 block of North Belmont Boulevard.

The renter left the home about 2 p.m. Wednesday and returned about 6:30 p.m. to find Weaver unconscious on the kitchen floor in front of the sink. All the plumbing underneath the sink had been disassembled, police said.

Weaver “would not wake up,” police reports said, so the renter called 911.

The house reeked of sewer gas when officers arrived.

“It was like sticking your face into the holding tank of a Johnny on the Spot (portable toilet) and taking a deep breath,” said Sgt. Eric Dillenkoffer, who responded to the scene. “That’s how intense it was ... It was obvious one of the sewer pipes was leaking.”

Firefighters told police they were concerned the victim might have been asphyxiated by the suspected gases. An ambulance took Weaver to a hospital, where she was declared dead.

Police aired out the house, called the city inspector and called the homeowner. The homeowner hired a plumber who came out Wednesday night and told her the removal of the trap under the kitchen sink left an open sewer line into the house. She said the plumber also detected sewer gas coming from a basement floor drain. All the home’s doors and windows were shut, apparently allowing toxic gas to fill the home.

The Jackson County Medical Examiner’s office was still trying to determine Weaver’s cause of death. Area plumbers and city officials had never heard of a local death attributed to sewer gas asphyxiation.

If the death is attributed to sewer gas, it would be among very few documented cases that have occurred inside a residence in the United States, said Nick Gromicko, of Nederland, Colo., the founder of the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors.

He said sewer gas contains a mix of gases, including methane and hydrogen sulfide. When sewer gases diffuse into household air, they gradually displace oxygen and can suffocate occupants, Gromicko said.

Extremely high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide can cause people to lose consciousness in one or two breaths, according to experts.

Residents normally detect the distinct “rotten egg” smell when the gas is present at a very low level and get the problem fixed, air out the home or remove themselves from the home. But if residents overlooked the stench and other preliminary symptoms, such as headaches and nausea, they could eventually lose their sense of smell, he said.

At certain levels, the gas can paralyze a person’s olfactory nerve, removing the awareness of the danger, he said.

“It’s a freaky thing,” he said of the death in Kansas City. “It’s an unlikely scenario.”

Sewer and sanitation workers, however, have been killed from sewer gas poisoning, including a father and son who died together while working in a sewer lift station in South Dakota in September. The son collapsed in a manhole, and the father went down to try to rescue him, according to news reports of the incident.

Two workers from Missouri also died after they were overcome with sewer gas while working in a sewer pit in Des Moines in 2002. They fell unconscious from the fumes and drowned in more than a foot of water.

It’s unclear whether Weaver or the renter disassembled the plumbing and why. The homeowner, Shirley Markle, said the renter, who is mentally challenged, had previously disassembled plumbing in the home.

“She thinks she can fix things,” Markle said.

But police are operating under the theory that Weaver may have been working on the plumbing under the sink when she was overcome by fumes. Her body was found near tools and pieces of pipe.

The renter has lived in the home for nearly 20 years, Markle said. Markle charges the renter $150 a month and was trying to help her out by letting her stay in the two-bedroom, one-bath home.

But the renter began inviting homeless people to stay with her in recent months, and the house became cluttered and dirty, Markle said. The renter would encounter homeless people who camped near the Super Flea, not far from her home.

About a month ago, Markle told her renter that she could not have other people stay at the home. Markle threatened to raise the rent to $400 if she continued to do so.

Several weeks ago, Markle helped the renter clean the home. She found at least eight empty vodka bottles on the front porch and beer cans strewn across the yard. They packed up eight bags of trash, mostly old clothes left by homeless people.

Markle last visited the home a week or so ago and found food-covered pans stacked “sky-high” in the sink. She said the renter always called her if there was a plumbing problem, but the renter did not report any trouble with the kitchen sink.

Markle now wonders if the renter avoided reporting a problem with the sink because the renter was afraid Markle would find out about her unauthorized guests.

Weaver had been living in a tent in the woods before the renter invited her to stay in her unfinished basement. Weaver had several children and seven grandchildren with one on the way, the renter told The Star.

An employee of Metal by the Foot at 3600 E. Truman Road said he regularly saw Weaver last year. At that time, she was living in a vacant home across the street. She would come by the shop, ask for change or try to sell tools or items she had found.

“She was really nice,” said Burt Johnson, a sales representative at the company.

To reach Christine Vendel, call 816-234-4438 or send email to cvendel@kcstar.com.

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