The story had all the trappings of a horror movie. Two months ago, the unexpected death of an elderly couple in their Boone, N.C. hotel room raised eyebrows in the small town nestled in the scenic Blue Ridge mountains. The incident faded from mind, but when an 11-year-old boy was found dead Saturday in the very same hotel room, it became much more than a coincidence.
Jeffrey Lee Williams, the young boy, died Saturday in room 225 of the Best Western Plus Blue Ridge Plaza. The cause of death was determined to be asphyxia, meaning his lungs couldn’t get enough oxygen. Williams, from Rock Hill, S.C., died spontaneously, and his 49-year-old mother was hospitalized in critical condition — circumstances strangely similar to that of Daryl Dean Jenkins, 73, and Shirley Mae Jenkins, 72, from Longview, Wash., who were found dead in the same room on April 16.
When questions quickly began swirling about the seemingly haunted hotel room, police explained that an initial test on Saturday showed a high amount of poisonous gas in the room. “During the emergency medical response, a presumptive test indicated an elevated level of carbon monoxide in the room,” said Boone Police Sgt. Shane Robbins. A toxicology analysis sent to the North Carolina state medical examiner is still pending, Robbins said.
The case investigation is slowly moving forward. Boone police said at a news conference on Monday that initially inconclusive blood tests on the couple had finally come back, revealing the cause of death as carbon monoxide poisoning. Police didn’t give an explanation for the two-month delay in getting the results — which could have led to the closing of the hotel long before Williams’ death.
While the source of the carbon monoxide is still uncertain, the hotel’s infrastructure may hold some clues. Room 225 is directly above the room housing a natural gas heater for the hotel’s swimming pool. Documents obtained by the Charlotte Observer show a Watauga County Health Department report indicating deficiencies in the pool. An inspection found that the pool did not meet industry standards and that its chemical and equipment room needed improved ventilation. Police said they were not aware of the inspection. However, there is no indication that the toxic gas harmed anyone else who stayed in the room between the deaths of the Jenkinses and Williams.
Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that, when inhaled, can cause loss of consciousness or even death as it starves the respiratory system of oxygen, according to the Centers for Disease Control website. It can come from several sources including gas engines and heating systems. As many as 500 deaths per year nationwide are caused by carbon monoxide poisoning, the Environmental Protection Agency says. But three in a single hotel room?
North Carolina requires carbon monoxide detectors in homes and apartments, but no such rule exists for hotels. The small town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains is a popular rural getaway that’s realized a tourism boom — including multimillion-dollar developments like the 73-room Best Western hotel — in the past few decades. The hotel was built in 2000.
Boone Police Chief Dana Crawford told reporters that examiners from the state board overseeing plumbing, heating and fire sprinkler contractors will be at the hotel on Wednesday to investigate. The hotel has been closed since Saturday and is under the control of authorities, Crawford said.