CHAMPAIGN – Five University of Illinois students were lucky to escape with their lives after they smelled gas in their apartment and called the Champaign Fire Department. Officials discovered a lethal level of carbon monoxide in the air.
The incident happened Nov. 30, and city Neighborhood Services officials on Thursday condemned the apartment, No. 48 at 102 E. Gregory Drive, after an inspection revealed problems with how the gas furnace and water heater were vented.
The city wants to inspect two other apartments immediately below the condemned unit, and corrections might be required for all 48 individual furnaces in the apartment building, according to Susan Salzman, property maintenance supervisor for the city of Champaign.
"This was a very close call for five students," Salzman said. "Carbon monoxide is very dangerous. Furnaces need to be inspected, and this one obviously never had been by anybody qualified."
The apartment building is owned by Gabe's Place in Urbana, which is headed by Gabe Omo-Osagie.
Omo-Osagie said Thursday he believes the city is treating him differently than it would most landlords. He said the day after the incident, the fire department tested for carbon monoxide and did not find any. The problem had been that snow had melted in the flue vent and then refroze. That was remedied, he said.
He said he had his maintenance staff install two carbon monoxide detectors in each apartment the day after the incident, and that Chief-Bauer Heating & Air Conditioning will be replacing the furnace in No. 48 today. Chief-Bauer will also inspect the two apartments below for problems, he said.
"We're going to inspect everything," Omo-Osagie said. "Is everybody else on campus doing that?"
He said he thought it unusual that the city would condemn a unit without giving him any advance notice or an opportunity to correct any problems.
"Obviously, somebody is using the city to fight their battles," he said.
A city fire department report shows that AmerenIP and city firefighters were called to the building on the evening of Nov. 30 after the residents smelled what they thought was flue gas. Firefighters received the call at 7:47 p.m.
An initial reading in the apartment was 200 to 300 parts per million of carbon monoxide, which can cause headache, dizziness and nausea. Apartments at the east edge of the building, which share a flue vent, were evacuated and the gas was shut off, the report stated.
AmerenIP checked the upper levels of apartment No. 48 and at one point got a reading of 900 parts per million, the report said. That level can be lethal with three hours of exposure, according to the city.
Two other apartments below No. 48 had carbon monoxide readings of 120 and 125 parts per million, Salzman said.
Jeff Sands of Champaign said his 18-year-old son, Benjamin, was one of the five residents in apartment No. 48. All of the youths are from Champaign-Urbana and have moved back in with their parents.
"I'm very upset about it," said Sands, who filed a complaint about the apartment Tuesday with Neighborhood Services, prompting this week's city inspection. Champaign, unlike Urbana and many other cities, does not perform systematic inspections of apartment interiors, but does inspect upon complaint.
"If the incident had happened four or five hours later, when the boys were asleep, the fire department said all of them would have died," Sands said. "Just by the grace of God, they made it out OK."
Salzman said she talked Thursday with Omo-Osagie and was told that he had hired Chief-Bauer.
"I want an assessment of all the furnaces in the building," Salzman said. "Chief is going to have to present a plan to make it safe to get an HVAC permit" from the city.
Salzman said that because the building is older, it doesn't have to meet current city mechanical codes.
"But it does have to be safe," she said.
City mechanic inspector Bob Cargo said he inspected the furnace and found problems. He said the common gas flue vent for all three apartments was undersized at about five inches for most of the building and six inches on the top floor. The vent should be at least one or two inches wider, he said.
"If all the individual furnaces kick on, there's a possibility there's not enough volume to draft out" furnace and water heater exhaust, Cargo said.
Current building code requires a separate flue vent out of the building for each apartment, but that probably wasn't the case when the apartment was built a few decades ago, he said.
Cargo said he also found carpeting, which is combustible, running underneath the water heater and a common gas shut-off value for both the furnace and water heater, when separate valves are required.
Residents of the apartment building said Thursday the incident left them concerned.
Jenny Godinez, a UI junior, said she arrived home on the night of Nov. 30 and found firefighters in her apartment and the windows open.
"It kind of freaked me out," she said.
Roommate Jessica Guzman said firefighters tested their apartment several times.
"At first they said everything was fine," she said. "Later on, they came and had me open the windows and air it out."
Salzman said the incident is an example of why Champaign needs a systematic apartment inspection program.
"This is a perfect example of things that could be caught if we were allowed entry into individual units," she said.
Apartment No. 48 will have to be meet city standards and pass an inspection before it can be inhabited again, Salzman said.