Officials continue to probe death at Doubletree in Key West

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City government officials in Key West, Fla., were continuing to investigate the Dec. 27 death of a 26-year old guest staying at the Doubletree Grand Key Resort, which was apparently caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty boiler.

The Key West Building Department revoked the hotel's certificate of occupancy and its occupational license on Dec. 29 and said they would not be reinstated until a licensed mechanical engineer had independently certified that the building is safe.

At press time, the 216-room hotel remained closed.  Doubletree is a Hilton Hotels brand. Calls to Hilton requesting comment had not been returned by press time.

Heartland Hotel Corp., a Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based firm that operates the Doubletree, issued a statement saying it was working "'closely with officials"' and "'conscientiously taking action to put new standards and equipment in place."'

According to the Key West Police Department, the victim was Thomas Lueders, who was staying in a room with his father on the fourth floor of the property. His father, who became ill, was flown to a hospital in Fort Myers.

The city's medical examiner, in a preliminary report, determined that carbon monoxide contributed to Lueders' death.

The Lueders' hotel room, according to a preliminary investigation, was adjacent to the hotel's boiler room. The investigation has since focused on the possibility that the boiler might have been the source of carbon monoxide.

Christie Phillips, the police department's public information officer, declined to comment further.

"'We are completing our reports and turning it over to the state attorney's office to see if they want to file charges,"' she said.

The state fire marshal on Jan. 4 began surveying all establishments in Key West that use boilers and hot water heaters to identify potential problems.

About 500 people die from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning each year. However, carbon monoxide-related deaths are virtually unheard of at hotels.

The Lueders death "'is the only incident that anyone could remember,"' said Joanna Weinhofer, president of the Lodging Association, a trade group representing lodging establishments in the Keys. Weinhofer said the Doubletree Grand Key is a member. 

While calling Lueders' death a "'tragic accident,"' Weinhofer also said it was "'a single incident. I don't think it says anything about the safety of our lodging industry whatsoever."'

Nevertheless, the circumstances surrounding the death have raised several questions regarding the thoroughness of city hotel inspections and whether municipalities should mandate that hotels install carbon-monoxide detectors.

Following Lueders' death, Heartland Hotel Corp. ordered all 11 of its hotels in the U.S. to install carbon monoxide detectors. Florida does not require such detectors.

Kevin Maher, senior vice president of governmental affairs for the American Hotels and Lodging Association, said that only three states -- Illinois, New Jersey, and Massachusetts -- have carbon monoxide laws that in some manner apply to lodging.

Involved in the Key West investigation is a multi-agency task force comprising the fire and police departments, the State Attorney's Office, the State Department of Health, the Monroe County Medical Examiner, the State Fire Marshal's Bureau of Fire, Arson and Explosions Investigations, the Bureau of Fire Prevention and the Department of Agriculture Division of Standards.

To contact reporter Michael Milligan, send e-mail to [email protected].

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