Family Shares Close Call With Carbon Monoxide

March 12, 2018 09:03 AM

It was New Year's Day, and the Pfeifer family was heading out to go sledding. But just as unexpected as the snow that came that weekend was a dangerous, close call.

"I had no idea it could happen so fast," said Tonya Pfeifer.


Dan Pfeifer was getting the two kids – Ben, aged 2-and-a-half, and Allery, aged 4 – bundled up and strapped into their car seats in their detached garage. His truck was not running at the time. After about 5 minutes, he noticed something was wrong with Ben.

RELATED: Sophia's Law Now in Effect: Carbon Monoxide Safety Measure Honors 7-Year-Old Girl

"His body went rigid and his eyes were staring up at the roof of the car," Dan Pfeifer said.

He brought Ben into the house and they called 911.

"He wasn't breathing, and when I went to check his pulse, there was no pulse," Tonya said. "At that point, we were losing him if we didn't act incredible fast."

Meanwhile, Dan went back out to the garage to check on Allery, who had also been strapped into her car seat. When he did, the silence was deafening.

"I go in there and expect her to be crying, and I can't hear any noise," he said. "Right away I thought, 'This can't be good.'"

In the few minutes they'd been in the garage, both kids had been exposed to toxic levels of carbon monoxide.

"At one point in time, both kids were laying on the kitchen floor, and I fully thought our children were dying and no one was getting here fast enough to save them," Tonya said.

They were rushed to the hyperbaric chambers at Hennepin County Medical Center, where Dr. Stephen Hendriksen's team gave them life-saving doses of oxygen.

"They were breathing carbon monoxide," Hendriksen said. "It was binding to their red blood cells and so they weren't getting enough oxygen to their body or their brain, and so it cause them to pass out."

CO Poisoning Prevention Tips, courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Gas- and oil-burning furnaces produce carbon monoxide (CO), an invisible, odorless, poison gas that kills hundreds every year and makes thousands more sick. Keep your family safe this winter by following these steps:

  • Have your furnace inspected every year.
  • Install battery-operated CO detectors near every sleeping area in your home.
  • Check CO detectors regularly to be sure they are functioning properly.   

Portable back-up generators produce carbon monoxide, as well. Keep your family safe by following these steps:

  • Never use a generator inside your home or garage, even if doors and windows are open.
  • Only use generators outside, more than 20 feet away from your home, doors, and windows.Install battery-operated CO detectors near every sleeping area in your home.
  • Check CO detectors regularly to be sure they are functioning properly. 

Back home, the Pfeifers were able to diagnose the culprit: the furnace and the chimney stack in their detached garage. A serviceman discovered it had been clogged with snow and ice from a recent storm, and so the appliance wasn't venting properly.

And while the Pfeifers have carbon monoxide detectors all over their house, they never thought to put one in a detached garage.

RELATED: 2 of 10 Exposed to CO in St. Paul Treated at Hennepin County's Hyperbaric Chamber

Chief Deputy Jim Smith of the State Fire Marshal's Office says people often overlook important places that need a detector.

"I think people need to know if you have any type of an appliance that uses a flame – a water heater, a furnace, a fire place – they all have the ability to make carbon monoxide," Smith said.

The Pfeifers wanted to share their story because it happened so quickly and in an unexpected place that might render many people vulnerable. Thankfully, their scare passed, but the lesson from that day became lasting.

"You see (Ben and Allery) so full of life, and it actually makes you the most anxious because we almost lost it all," Tonya Pfeifer said.

Carbon monoxide cases can start with seemingly innocent symptoms like a headache or fatigue. In more extreme cases like those of Ben and Allery, symptoms can come on at once.

Whether safeguarding a home, garage, fish house or even boat, officials say, you should always make sure appliances are venting properly. Especially in Minnesota, vents can commonly become blocked after a snowstorm.


Ellen Galles

Copyright 2018 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company


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