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50 tenants evacuated after deadly monoxide leak - 01/13/09

A carbon monoxide leak in a San Francisco apartment building killed a 77-year-old man and injured eight other people Monday night, even though an alarm meant to detect the dangerous gas had been beeping since Sunday night.

Firefighters went to the five-story building at 816 Geary Street, near Hyde Street, twice on Monday evening. The first time they transported someone with shortness of breath to the hospital, but did not realize the person was suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Thirty minutes later, around 7:45 p.m. , fire officials responded to another call at the building and found the dead victim, a man residents identified only as "Eddie" who was believed to be a former manager of the building.

Andre Lambert, a fourth-floor resident of the building, said he and others had heard a steady beeping sound that seemed to be coming from a unit on his floor since late Sunday. They thought it was an alarm clock.

"It turns out there was a resident that by choice had a carbon monoxide reader, but that person had not been home for a couple of days, so no one knew what it was," said San Francisco Fire spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge.

A normal reading for carbon monoxide is below 25 parts per million and fire officials were getting readings of over 900 parts per million in the building, Talmadge said.

"The readings were off the scale," she said.

Seven other people reported symptoms from breathing the gas. They were all in stable condition.

In all, 50 people were evacuated from the building and a hazardous material team was investigating. Fire officials said the poisoning was due to improper ventilation of a water heater or boiler in the basement. Both were turned off and residents were expected to return late Monday night.

Firefighters did not immediately realize that both calls to the building were carbon monoxide poisoning cases.

The family of the man who died had called authorities to check on him because they had not heard from him in two days. Fire officials found him dead on the floor.

"They thought the two calls could have been a coincidence but decided to call the hazardous materials team," Talmadge said.

Resident Tomas Mendez said he and his wife had smelled gas on Sunday night and were feeling dizzy, but went to bed. On Monday, they awakened with the dizziness and headaches.

Mendez said he notified the building manager and opened the windows of his apartment.

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, tasteless, colorless and highly toxic gas that is a byproduct of combustion.

"The readings in the building were so high it is quite possible there was some kind of odor that developed," Talmadge said.

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