How far back do Powell deaths go? Office convinced carbon monoxide is old problem
By Mark Shaffer, mark.shaffer@arizonarepublic.com, (602) 444-8057
The Arizona Republic
December 3, 2000

With the jaundiced eye of a good cop, Coconino County sheriff's Lt. Ron Anderson has watched the body count climb at Lake Powell.

Citing National Park Service statistics, Anderson said nearly half of the 128 deaths over the past decade at the giant northern Arizona lake have scant or no explanation.

Anderson believes that the Bermuda Triangle has nothing on Lake Powell.

He shakes his head at the statistics released last week by state and federal health officials: 111 poisonings from carbon monoxide released from boats, two-thirds of them houseboats, resulting in nine deaths and 102 injuries.

"I bet there's been 10 times that number of injuries from carbon monoxide," said Anderson, who believes that the colorless, odorless and potentially deadly gas released from boat engines and electric generators has played a greater role in the mysterious deaths at the lake than investigators have so far discovered.

For example, Anderson cites the case of Page mechanic Joe Spencer, who was required to dive into the lake while repairing a houseboat motor in 1993.

Though Spencer was an avid swimmer in peak condition, he came up one time for air, then never resurfaced.

Spencer isn't listed among the carbon monoxide casualties. Neither are the 57 bodies that, since the lake was created by Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, slipped beneath the surface and have never been found.

"Seven years ago, the doctors at the emergency room here started making the connection between carbon monoxide poisoning and people on houseboats," Anderson said. "But before then, there were an awful lot of death certificates that listed 'unknown' or 'accidental' for deaths all over this lake."

Boat experts in the area estimate that about half of the vessels have design problems that could trap the deadly gas. On many houseboats, exhaust from gasoline-powered generators vent to the rear, where it often is trapped under swimming platforms. Many newer boats have side vents that allow the exhaust to escape.

More deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning wouldn't surprise Red Foster of Page, whose aging Kayot pontoon boat is one of more than 800 houseboats parked in the slips at Wahweap Marina.

Foster purchased his used houseboat 13 years ago from a boating concessionaire. "I got one of the first carbon monoxide detectors and put it in my boat five or six years ago, and the thing has never gone off," said Foster, who is retired from the Navy. "I also use a lot of common sense with it, like not going in that area if there's not a breeze and always making sure there's circulation if the rear door on the boat is open."

But Foster said that common sense is the last thing on the minds of the hundreds of thousands of revelers who rent houseboats at the lake.

"There are notices of the dangers of carbon monoxide all around here, but you wonder how many of the visitors pay attention to it," Foster said. "They get a short course in how to start and steer the boat, and then they take off.

"But my feeling is, they have to accept the responsibility of how to operate the boat in a responsible and safe matter."

But even those who thought they were operating the boats safely have suffered fatal consequences.

Bob Soule's friend Joe Premeaux died of carbon monoxide poisoning while at the wheel of a boat on Lake Powell in 1995.

Soule, who lives close to the lake near the Arizona-Utah line, said he and Premeaux and two others were towing a disabled boat. With no warning, they all passed out simultaneously.

As it turned out, the boat's velocity had been 10 to 15 knots while a 20-knot tailwind had pushed carbon monoxide into the boat through an open back door.

"When Joe passed out, he hit the throttle and turned the steering wheel, and we just went around in a circle for hours before beaching and running out of gas," Soule said. "That's the only thing that kept the rest of us alive because enough fresh air came in to dissipate the carbon monoxide."

Sheriff's Lt. Anderson said such bizarre stories don't surprise him anymore.

"We've just seen the tip of the iceberg about this whole situation," Anderson said.

And now, there's another danger.

"A lot of these big boats have all kinds of electrical appliances on them, and they send out an electrical field 6 feet or so away from the edge of the boat," Anderson explained. "We just had a guy die of electrocution because he dove into the water too close to the boat."

 

    Copyright 2000, The Arizona Republic. All rights reserved. This article graciously provided courtesy of The Arizona Republic.