Andrew Dys

Fort Mill couple who survived CO poisoning say child's death “absolutely unnecessary”

Billie and Pete Watson survived carbon monoxide poisoning in a motel room above a swimming pool heater more than two decades ago, in a situation identical to the deaths of an elderly couple and an 11-year-old Rock Hill boy.

They are calling for stiffer regulations in America’s motel rooms to prevent any more “absolutely unnecessary” deaths.

The Watsons’ plea for action comes at the same time the family of Jeffrey Williams – who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a Boone, N.C., motel room on June 8 – demands action so this “tragedy” never happens to another family.

Daryl and Shirley Jenkins of Longview, Wash., died of carbon monoxide poison April 16 in the same room Jeffrey did.

“If every place is required to have a fire alarm to warn people, then every place that the public stays in should have a carbon monoxide detector,” Billie Watson said. “We barely survived a situation that is just like the one that killed the couple in April and that precious boy two weeks ago.”

Jeannie Williams, Jeffrey’s mother, was hospitalized and is still recovering from carbon monoxide poisoning.

The Watsons suffered carbon monoxide poisoning in a Pigeon Forge, Tenn., motel room in the late 1980s, when they had kids around the same age as Jeffrey.

They both were hospitalized and received oxygen treatments and endured a long-term recovery. A pregnant woman in the motel room next to theirs also was poisoned and lost her baby.

“The fact is that carbon monoxide almost killed us,” Pete Watson said. “We just stopped at a motel for the night, and we barely made it out alive.”

The couple later learned that, like the Boone incidents, inspections had not been performed on the pool heating systems involved – no testing for carbon monoxide, no detectors.

“There should be a fire department inspection at least every year,” Billie Watson said. “These deaths were totally unnecessary. When the news broke about these people dying in the same room as the little boy, with no signs of any other problem, we knew the first day it had to be carbon monoxide.

“You can’t see it or smell it, but it can kill. That poor boy and his mother – no reason at all this should have happened.”

When the Watsons were sickened, they had to crawl out of their room because the gas had weakened them to the point that Pete later passed out. Billie Watson was nauseous to the point of vomiting.

After Pete came to, he crawled down the motel’s outdoor steps to get medical help.

“If we had died – and we almost did – we never would have been able to raise our children,” Billie Watson said. “Their lives would have been different; they would have been orphaned.”

Carbon monoxide poisoning can require long rehabilitation. Billie Watson was sick for weeks, and her asthma was made far worse. She cannot endure even minimal levels of carbon monoxide exposure.

The Watson home has had a carbon monoxide detector ever since.

“We would not live without a detector in our home, so why would any motel room where people stay not have one?” she said.

Starting July 1, many new and existing hotels in South Carolina will be required to have carbon monoxide detectors, but North Carolina has no such rules. The International Building Code recommends detectors, but states vary, and there is no federal requirement for carbon monoxide detectors in motel rooms.

“The summer just started and people are taking their families to motels all over the place,” Pete Watson said. “They have a right to know that they are safe.”

The Watsons were later part of a class-action lawsuit against the Pigeon Forge motel over the carbon monoxide poisoning. It is unclear what actions the Williams family might take against the Boone motel, the state of North Carolina, or other parties that might have made serious missteps, as the investigation is continuing.

Recovery for Jeannie Williams, who had to be hospitalized for days after the incident in Boone, continues, said her brother-in-law, Darrell Williams.

“Jeannie is going through physical rehabilitation, beginning to see medical specialists and battling the effects of this poison every day,” Darrel Williams said. “Some days are better than others, but she has a great outlook, strong faith and strong support.”

Even as North Carolina officials investigate why the pool heater lacked a permit and hadn’t been inspected, why the state medical examiner’s office did not do more to investigate after the death of the first couple, the Williams family’s investigators are continuing to seek answers.

“We as a family want to make sure of exactly what happened to cause this tragedy,” Darrel Williams said, “and (we) will work tirelessly to make sure it never happens again.”

The Watsons are “appalled” that the Williams family and the family of Daryl and Shirley Jenkins must endure such suffering for any safety improvements to be made for travelers.

“Laws should be in place – regulations in place, and inspections and follow-ups in place – to protect people from carbon monoxide,” Billie Watson said. “People can’t help themselves in this type of situation. You can’t smell or see the gas. We were lucky. We somehow lived. But this little boy in Rock Hill didn’t.

“There’s no reason he should have died – no good reason in this world.”