News

Sign warns of carbon monoxide danger

By Teresa Herriman

The Courier-Herald

The night couldn't have been more beautiful. The air was warm and the water on Lake Tapps was as smooth as silk. Denise Colbert, a Sumner High School graduate, was scheduled to board a plane the next morning to return to college in Duesseldorf, Germany.

But first, she and her friends planned to spend one last night together. They went out to dinner, then gathered at a friend's house. Someone suggested they go for a late-night swim. It was something they had done before.

Colbert was only 20 feet from the dock in a private cove when she soundlessly slipped under the water and drowned. Later, her family would learn carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning contributed to her death. The 21-year-old girl had died of CO poisoning produced by the exhaust of a nearby idling boat.

Her father, Jay Colbert, was told a reading of 25 percent could cause a person to pass out. His daughter's blood contained more than 30 percent carbon monoxide.

Barry Barquest, battalion chief for East Pierce Fire and Rescue, has seen it before. The colorless, odorless gas produced by recreational boats stays close to the water, accumulating under the boat's swim platform and in enclosed cabins. On a windless night, toxic levels of carbon monoxide can easily build up at water level. Often victims of CO poisoning report irritated eyes, headache, nausea, weakness and dizziness. In severe cases, like Denise Colbert, CO poisoning causes loss of consciousness.

Stunned by the loss of their daughter, Jay and Kelly Colbert channeled their grief into action. Almost immediately, Jay Colbert began researching CO poisoning.

Doctors have only recently understood the devastating effect of CO poisoning. The number of deaths by the gas has increased dramatically as researchers review drowning cases only to find CO poisoning the cause of many deaths.

Even more disturbing is how seriously public awareness has lagged behind.

"If we had known there was a danger, we could have taught our kids (about) that," Kelly Colbert, Denise's stepmother said.

"We were clueless. You always want to protect your kids, but how do you protect them from something you don't know about?"

To help raise awareness on Lake Tapps, the Colbert family helped create an informational sign in memory of Denise. The sign was recently installed at the launch site at Allan Yorke Park. It bears a photo of Denise and a warning of the dangers of CO poisoning.

The sign is a cooperative effort of the city of Bonney Lake and East Pierce Fire and Rescue. Bonney Lake Councilwoman Cheryle Noble spearheaded the project. A longtime friend of the Colbert family, Noble said "the only positive thing that can come out of this is sparing other families."

At first it was going to be a memorial to Denise, Noble said. "Then Jay and Barry talked about combining it with an informational campaign."

Noble worked with Barquest to create the design and develop the message, but due to privacy laws, the fire department couldn't produce a sign with a victim's name on it. Noble convinced the city of Bonney Lake to fund the project that includes a second sign, without Denise's picture, near the swim area.

With 50 lakes in Pierce County, Jay Colbert says there should be signs at every lake.

Meanwhile, Jay and Kelly are working to get CO poisoning warning stickers on all boats. They hope eventually, the state will hand out the stickers or perhaps even the city could give one with each receipt at the boat launch.

Part of the increase in CO poisoning deaths has been attributed to the popularity of swim decks, or ski platforms, on the back of boats. Boats with a platform give skiers a spot to sit and prepare before starting off. Most operators don't think to switch off the motor while people are on the platform. Without an understanding of CO poisoning, many boaters have no idea they are putting themselves and their loved ones in danger.

Colbert says simply using a CO sensor on the back of the boat can greatly reduce the risk. Most marine supply stores carry CO detectors, helping to warn of dangerous CO levels. Devices designed to reduce CO emissions are also appearing on the market.

To raise awareness and help prevent a tragedy, East Pierce Fire and Rescue has initiated a public education program to distribute bumper stickers and brochures. The program is funded by a grant from the Boat United States Foundation. The $3,600 grant is part of the Safe Kids Coalition, a program developed in cooperation with Mary Bridge Children's Hospital and Health Center and the Tacoma Fire Department. Grant money will be used to create additional signs for area lakes. Next Memorial Day weekend, Barquest said he plans an educational event at Lake Tapps Park to kick-off the boating season.

"What really concerns me is that so many people don't realize this danger exists," he said.

The Colbert's are pleased with the new sign.

"For us, this is a start. Thanks to Cheryle, Barry and (city assistant public works director) Gary Leaf," Kelly Colbert said.

On a blustery September evening, the Colberts sat in Allan Yorke Park watching the steady stream of boats at the launch. Speaking to no one in particular, they count the absence of CO detectors or stickers on the back of the boats.

"People think, 'it will never happen to me,'" Kelly Colbert said sadly.

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