8 November, 1989
Three Still Hospitalized: Overcome by Gas Fumes
Three residents of a dwelling at 120 Witherspoon Street remained in fair condition Tuesday at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, two days after they and four others in the house were overcome by poisonous carbon monoxide fumes.
The deadly fumes that filled the interior originated from a malfunctioning gas furnace in the cellar, police Said. The fumes were blocked from escaping up the chimney by a faulty flue. The two-story house had been ordered closed two weeks ago by Borough health officials after inspectors found more than two-dozen alleged health code violations.
According to Capt. Thomas Michaud the seven victims, all Asian males, were sleeping in the house next door to the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church at 12:10 Sunday after-noon when one woke up. Delirious, he walked outside and staggered around on the sidewalk. A passer-by came to his aid and called police. The victim said that he had been overcome by gas fumes in the house.
When police and rescue squad workers arrived, they found another victim conscious and outside the house. The other five were unconscious in various places in the house, most in bedrooms.
Oxygen Administered. They were removed from the house, in critical condition, by rescue workers who administered oxygen. At the scene were police,the Princeton First Aid Squad, Princeton firemen, Mercer County paramedics and the Lawrenceville First Aid Squad.
All seven were taken to nearby Princeton Medical Center and then transported by helicopter to Philadelphia for special treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning. Four of the victims were released on Monday. The remaining three are receiving treatment’ in a hyperbaric chamber designed to force smoke out of their lungs. Their condition has been upgraded from critical to fair.
Capt. Michaud said Tuesday that police still do not have a confirmed list of the names of the victims. The names of two, identified as the two who managed to escape from the house, were given as Quing Wang, 22, and Chen-Yi Su, 33. One speaks a little English. the other none at all. Capt. Michaud said.
Most of the victims, he said, are believed to be employees of the North China Restaurant, 36 Witherspoon Street. Because police have not been able to establish the identity of the victims for certain. Capt. Michaud said that police still don’t know if all were employed at the restaurant.
The dwelling at 120 Witherspoon is leased by its owner, Benjamin Kahn, to Francis Sung, owner of the restaurant. Mr. Sung rents space in the house to his employees. A sign on the door of the restaurant says that it will be closed. for a few days. “At this point, our investigation has not revealed any criminal violations,” Capt. Michaud said. He added that the investigation by the Borough Health Department is continuing.
Many Safety Violations. According to Borough Health Officer Patrick Hanson, inspections of the home on October 9 and 16 uncovered many violations, including asbestos in the basement, no smoke detectors, broken windows, exposed wires, defective sinks and poor flooring. Mr. Kahn, he reported, is scheduled to appear in Borough Court this month, charged with allowing occupants to stay in a house after he was told they had to leave.
As he has since the incident began, Mr. Kahn on Tuesday said that he had no comment to make.
The building has since been closed and its windows boarded up. It will not be reopened until the heating system has been repaired and certified safe by Public Service Electric & Gas inspectors.
A PSE&G spokesman confirmed that a blocked flue had caused a downdraft, allowing the house to fill with carbon monoxide. A plumber working on a sewer pipe in the house the day before the near tragedy discovered flames coming from in front of the furnace heater. He disconnected the unit and the furnace thermostat.
During the night, someone in the house apparently tried to reconnect the heater — which was connected to the chimney and its blocked flue. A fireman at the scene said later that tools were found at the scene indicating that such an attempt had been made.
Before that, PSE&G had been called at 5:57 Saturday by an unknown person who requested the heater be serviced. Because it was not an emergency, the caller was told that a repairman would be there with. in 16 hours.
The utility was called again Sunday morning about 9::;25, but when a repair crew arrived a few minutes later, they left after no one answered repeated knocks on the door.
SITE OF NEAR-TRAGEDY: The front door of this two-story dwelling at 120 Witherspoon Street was still open when this picture was taken Sunday, to allow fresh air to circulate. Seven occupants were overcome by poisonous carbon-monoxide fumes when gas from a furnace was unable to escape up a blocked chimney flue.