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Published: Thursday, 2/7/2002

Toxic fumes kill 4 in home near Hillsdale

BY KIM BATES
AND STEVE MURPHY
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

JEROME, Mich. - Toxic fumes from a basement generator heating a family's home seeped to the first floor and killed four adults apparently while they slept, Hillsdale County authorities said yesterday. A fifth person was in critical condition.

Deputies said they had no idea how the boy survived. He was admitted to the hospital while authorities finda relative to care for him.

A worried call from an out-of-state relative led sheriff's deputies to search the home Tuesday night. The gas generator was on, but was not working because it had run out of gas, authorities said.

When deputies found the boy, he was confused. He indicated that he thought his parents were fine.

Yesterday, a neighbor flipped through pictures of the boy when he was 9 months old.

“He still looks the same. He looks like his daddy,” Sue Farren said, crying. “I just feel sorry for the little fella.”

The boy is in Hillsdale Community Health Center under observation. The only other survivor, a man, is in Parkview Memorial Hospital in Fort Wayne, Ind., and like the others had suspected carbon monoxide poisoning. The man's condition was described as critical. He was unconscious when sheriff's deputies found him.

“He was breathing. That's about it. There was no conversation,” Sheriff Stan Burchardt said. Doctors in Fort Wayne put the man on 100 percent oxygen to try to get the carbon monoxide out of his system.

Autopsies will be performed by the Lucas County Coroner's Office today.

The sheriff would not release the victims' names. But a hospital official confirmed that the boy being treated is Paul Borener and authorities confirmed that the boy's parents, Arthur and Candy Borener, died.

Nobody had heard from the victims for several days, and it's hard for deputies to say when they died. A grocery store receipt in one person's pocket indicates that the person was alive at 9 p.m. Saturday; one woman found dead in the house did not show up for work Monday morning, the sheriff said.

A concerned relative from Florida called a friend in Hillsdale County on Tuesday and asked him to check on Boreners, who lived in the home. The friend went to the double-wide manufactured home, but nobody answered the door.

The man went to the sheriff's department and asked if he could go inside without permission. Deputies went with the man, found an unlocked door, and found the victims about 11:30 p.m. Three - including the surviving man - were in bed. One was on the floor near a bed. Another was in the bathroom, authorities said.

“It's a good thing we went. We have a little boy who could have frozen to death,” Sheriff Burchardt said.

A newly purchased thermometer, in the home but still in its wrapper, read 39 degrees.

The relationship between the couple who lived in the home and the other three adults is unclear. Sheriff Burchardt said the last time family members talked to their Hillsdale County friend, they had learned of the deaths and were on their way to Michigan.

A dead cat found in the home was tested for carbon monoxide poisoning. The normal level is about 1 percent; the animal had a level of 32 percent, Hillsdale County Medical Examiner Lawrence Dasch said.

The family moved onto the remote lot in Somerset Township, northeast of Hillsdale and about 80 miles from Toledo, from the Jackson area about five years ago when they were about to have a son, neighbors said. They moved into their home in December.

The gas generator was hooked up to a circuit breaker to power the furnace and heat the water. It was in the basement, which was only accessible by a hole in the wall where it appeared the family had planned to install sliding glass doors.

The hole was covered by a tarp, securely enough to force the toxic gas into the first floor instead of outside, authorities said.

The sheriff said gas generators in unventilated buildings are dangerous.

“The problem is we have a gas-running engine with no ventilation. It was in the building. It should have been outside,” he said.

Authorities don't believe there was a problem with the generator producing heat, because no one was wrapped in blankets or wearing warm clothes.

Timothy Pietryga, a spokesman for Consumers Power, said the family had electric service, and that it was only interrupted between 10:32 p.m. Friday and 6 p.m. Saturday because of a storm.

Electric appliances in the home indicate the family did use electricity. But it didn't appear the lights or power were being used when deputies arrived Tuesday. Sheriff Burchardt said deputies didn't test the lights to see if they worked, but said lights on at the homes next door indicated the power lines worked.

A Consumers employee was at the house yesterday, checking to make sure the power worked properly.

The family recently moved from an old manufactured home on the property to the new one. At some point during the moving process, the LP gas was disconnected, and the family was apparently using kerosene heaters to keep themselves warm, according to utility records.

Records indicate that the washer and dryer had been disconnected and a hose running from a neighbor's house provided the trailer with water.

Sheriff Burchardt said it appeared utilities were hooked up in the new home.

Four vehicles in the driveway hadn't been moved in some time, which helped tip authorities that something was wrong.

Friends and people who lived on the gravel road near the victims' home were shocked at the news of the deaths. They said one man was a biker who was fond of entertaining; Mrs. Borener was friendly and outgoing.

“She was beautiful and friendly, friendly as can be. I saw Candy three weeks ago and asked how they liked [the new home] and she said they loved it. They had a lot of extra space,” Ms. Farren said.

Blade staff writer Kelly Lecker contributed to this report.



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