A mechanical engineer who ran a battery of tests in a South Berkeley apartment on Deakin Street found no apparent cause for the carbon monoxide poisoning that killed a couple and their cats there in January, according to a report released Wednesday by the city.
“I am not recommending occupancy of Unit 4 as we still do not know the source of the carbon monoxide intrusion,” licensed engineer Michael Wintheiser told the city in a March 28 email that became available this week. His testing, inspection and document review identified no source of carbon monoxide, or any unsafe conditions that might have contributed to it. Wintheiser said the couple’s laser cutter, which has been in police custody since January, should now be tested because it has been identified as a potential source of toxic gas.
Roger Hanna Morash, 35, and Valerie Morash 32, were found dead Jan. 23 on the second floor of their apartment at 3028 Deakin St. Their two Singapura cats, Minsky and Malloc, were also dead. Their exact time of death has not been determined, but they were last seen alive late Saturday night. Early PG&E and Fire Department tests found no sign of elevated carbon monoxide levels in the air, but autopsies later showed significantly elevated intake. The couple died from acute carbon monoxide intoxication, as did their cats.
In February, the city deemed the unit unfit for habitation until the property owners could hire an engineer to run tests there. The case initially began as a criminal investigation because of the unusual circumstances: two people dying at the same place at the same time, said city spokesman Matthai Chakko. Ultimately police concluded the deaths were a tragic accident. The city was “still concerned,” however, and Chakko said that’s what prompted the decision to deem the unit unsafe pending the mechanical engineer’s assessment. “We wanted to do everything we could to make sure those units are safe,” he said, of the four-unit building.
Property owners Cindy Kwong and Tony Wong hired licensed mechanical engineer Wintheiser to do the analysis. He found no obvious cause of carbon monoxide emissions despite hours of testing and other research. Now their attorney has appealed the “unsafe” designation so the unit can be rented again, according to documents filed with the city. Berkeley spokesman Chakko said Wednesday the city is still reviewing the matter and has not made its ruling yet.
Kwong and Wong, as well as the Wong/Kwong Family Trust, are facing a lawsuit brought by Florida based Susan Hanna, mother of Roger, as first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this week. Her attorney Michael Bracamontes says the landlords breached the lease because there was no carbon monoxide detector on the second floor, where the couple slept. According to the wrongful death suit, that’s a violation of state law and the building code.
According to inspection reports conducted by the city in February, two of the other three units in the building were also without second-floor carbon monoxide detectors. One of those units was also missing its ground-floor smoke detector, according to the city.
In 2010, California passed a law requiring landlords to install carbon monoxide detectors “outside of each separate sleeping area in the immediate vicinity of the bedrooms.” The alarms must be at least 6 inches from exterior walls and 3 feet from vents. There was a working carbon monoxide detector on the first floor of the Morash’s two-story unit, according to numerous people familiar with the apartment, but none on the second.
Each unit in the building has a gas-fired wall heater and a gas-fired water heater, according to Wintheiser’s report. He took a close look at both for his assessment.
Wintheiser said PG&E turned over to him inspection reports for units 1, 2 and 3, which showed carbon monoxide levels within the acceptable range. PG&E never gave him its report for Unit 4, however, and that report was not provided as part of the police report he reviewed. Police wrote — according to Wintheiser — that PG&E surveyed the wall and water heaters Jan. 23 and found no “gas leaks that would constitute a hazard.” The next day, PG&E again tested the wall heater and found it “within safe threshold.” Carbon monoxide was not found in the air either.
The city denied Berkeleyside’s request to review the police report and said it is not considered a public document.
In March, representatives of Wintheiser’s business, EMP consultants, inspected all four units on Deakin as well as the roof. They found nothing amiss despite testing and measurements with multiple devices. They measured “breathable space air” for carbon monoxide, as well as the flue gases in the heaters. Wintheiser noted several things that should be adjusted, but wrote that none should have led to a build-up of carbon monoxide.
According to his report, all four units have three smoke detectors on the second floor, and a smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector on the first floor. He said all of those were working during his inspection. He wrote that he agreed with PG&E’s recommendation that combustion air openings could be improved, and said carbon monoxide detectors should be added on the second floor of each unit “as a precautionary measure.” He went on to note in his report that they had already been installed in the three units with tenants.
EMP, as well as attorneys for both parties, went to the Berkeley Police Department to look at items police removed from the unit during their investigation: the laser cutter, exhaust equipment, air compressor, plastic samples and a power cord. Police told Wintheiser they found the exhaust duct window termination board on the floor of the upstairs office connected to the laser printer.
“This means that any hazardous fumes generated in the laser cutter could have been discharged into the room where Mr. Morash was found,” Wintheiser wrote. He noted, as well, “Berkeley Police officers advised us the duct connections were very loosely connected at the window termination board and to the exhaust fan.”
Wintheiser noted the presence of a blue tape seal around the cover of the laser cutter which be believes “indicates an effort to prevent gases from the laser cutter escaping.” Wintheiser hypothesizes that the laser cutter was in use at the time the couple died “as we observed a plastic piece inside the cutter…. The presence of the tape would indicate the cutting process had not been completed.”
A friend of the couple told Berkeleyside that Val had a removable exhaust pipe with a window insert that she used whenever the cutter was running. And he said she always followed safety guidelines. “To the best of our knowledge,” he said, the laser cutter was not operating when the couple died. Attorney Bracamontes told the Chronicle the cutter was “plugged in to a power strip that was switched off” when authorities found it.
Police interviewed a friend who told them the laser machine had been “melting plastic” the last time Val Morash tried to use it, Wintheiser wrote. “A new laser cell was found in a box in the living room.” Police also spoke with a forensic pathologist who said he believed the laser could possibly have been the source of carbon monoxide.
That interview was in conflict with a discussion investigators had with a Berkeley engineer who said he did not think the laser could generate enough carbon monoxide to be fatal, Wintheiser wrote. That engineer also “recommended a smoke test to confirm the draft diverter was properly venting.”
Ultimately, Wintheiser said he thought the next step should be testing the laser cutter “for carbon monoxide or other toxic gas generation.”
Attorney Charles A. Alfonzo, representing the property owners for Oakland-based Burnham Brown, said in his letter to the city that no violation has been found, and it’s time for the city to clear the unit. He said the levels of carboxyhemoglobin saturation found in the couple’s bodies would have required “quite a significant exposure,” which none of the gas appliances were shown to produce.
“The investigation was somewhat hampered as the actual PG&E, Fire Department, and HazMat reports were not made available,” he wrote. The coroner’s report was not provided, either, he said. “Nevertheless, our understanding from the police report is that no excessive levels of carbon monoxide were detected.”
Alfonzo too is lobbying for testing of the laser cutter, writing, “it was known by neighbors to emit odors.” He said carbon monoxide has no smell, but it can combine with other materials to create one.
He continued, “This is a source that will require testing of various materials and operation to determine if production of carbon monoxide in sufficient quantity can be produced. At this time, however, we have been unable to locate any source or deficiency within the building.… Please consider this the notice of appeal.”
As of Wednesday, city spokesman Chakko said the violation ruling is still in place, and no one can move into the unit.