Location: Roseville, Minnesota
Date: November 7, 1991
Early on the morning of November 7, 1991, Dr. Tom Lange and his wife, Ginny, were sleeping peacefully in their home in Roseville, Minnesota, when Tom was awakened by a loud thud. It seemed to come from the floor above them, where their eight children (seven of them adopted) were also in bed asleep. "I thought perhaps that this was one of our restless children who had fallen out of bed," said Tom. "But immediately after that, there was another thud and some crying, and I thought that I had to investigate that. When I reached the top of the steps, I saw Chuck lying face down in the bathroom."
"Chuck, what's wrong?" Tom asked his 10-year-old son, anxiously. "I don't feel good," the child murmured in reply. 12-year-old Dana was also collapsed on the floor. "Dana?" Tom said, baffled. "I have a toothache," she muttered, groggily. "Come on, you two, let's get going. Let me help you," Tom said, trying to lift Dana to her feet. "I can't," Dana protested. Yes, you can walk," Tom insisted, pulling her into an upright position and guiding her out of the bathroom.
"Then I saw Tina in the hall, and asked her how she was doing, and she said she was sick too," Tom said. "What I was thinking at that time was that several of the kids had the flu--and that wasn't unusual, to have three or four kids be sick in our household."
"A couple of kids are sick upstairs," Tom told his wife when he returned to their bedroom. "They've got the flu." "I told Tom that I couldn't get up then, because I just felt too nauseated," Ginny said. "I'll take care of it," Tom replied. "I was trying to think through what could be going on--why would so many family members be sick?" Tom went up to get some Tylenol, but when he went back upstairs he found another of his children, Jason, age 12, lying on the hallway floor, showing signs of a seizure. "It was at this point that I really became concerned," Tom said. He went back to check on the rest of his children, and discovered to his dismay that they were all showing signs of sickness.
Suspecting that there might be a gas leak, Tom went down into the basement to check the heaters. "We hadn't used our pool for about 2 months," he said, "but the burner seemed to be going full blast, and I couldn't turn it off. I didn't know what was going on, but I knew that heater shouldn't have been on like that. At this point, I felt a little woozy. As soon as I felt that myself, I became convinced that we were probably poisoned by carbon monoxide."
Tom opened several doors and windows throughout the house to let in fresh air, and then called the Poison Control Center. The dispatcher told him to get everyone out of the house quickly and over to the hospital. Tom and Ginny tried to round up all the children, but to no avail; they were all much too weak. In a panic, he called 911. The call came in to the Ramsey County Sheriff's Department. "This is Dr. Tom Lange," Tom told the dispatcher. "All of us woke up sick this morning. We're a family of 10."
"What do you think the problem is?" the dispatcher asked. "I think it's carbon monoxide poisoning. I called the Poison Control Center." How sick is the sickest person there?" asked the dispatcher. "We have coordination problems," Tom answered. "I have a van, but I don't think I can drive. I want to get my children down from upstairs." "Can you keep them awake, and we'll send somebody right over?" the dispatcher asked. "Okay," Tom said, and hung up the phone. Rescue units from the Roseville Fire Department were immediately dispatched.
"It was important to keep the kids moving and crawling and getting down to the fresh air," Ginny said, "because as long as they stayed where they were, they weren't going to be safe. They just wanted to lie down, and that's the only thing you want to do, because you're dizzy, you're nauseated, you're doubled up with pain in your stomach. The pain of this is excruciating." "After my daddy called 911, I wondered if they were going to be there in time in order to save us," one of Tom and Ginny's daughters said. "All you're thinking at that moment is, 'Am I going to survive? Are we going to survive as a family?' "
Soon, the first rescue units arrived, including paramedic Denise Demars. "Carbon monoxide poisoning is real serious," Demars said. "And it's a cumulative thing--you can get more and more and more of it, and if you don't get rid of it, you will go into respiratory arrest, cardiac arrest, and you will die from it."
"The kids were so sick--we were so sick," Ginny said. "You can't stand up; you can't move. Mobilizing those kids when they were that way-you hardly have the strength, but you know you've got to do it. It's like being in a fire--you've got to move. They kept saying, 'I can't, I can't,' and we kept saying, 'You've got to, you've got to. This is your life.' "
Because of the large number of victims, extra rescue units from the Roseville Fire Department were dispatched. Within 10 minutes of the call, fire department rescue workers, including Fire Chief Joel Hewitt, began arriving on the scene. "I got out of the truck with my personnel and I told them to systematically search the house from the north end to the south end, looking in the bathrooms, in the closets, under the beds--wherever a person could be," Hewitt said. Outfitted with air packs, the firemen under his direction rushed into the house, gathered up the eight children and placed them in a large rescue vehicle, where Health One EMTs assessed their levels of carbon monoxide, administered 100% oxygen, and coordinated transportation to two different hospitals, one of which had a hyperbaric chamber to treat severe cases of carbon monoxide poisonings.
"They were all in different stages of consciousness," Hewitt said. "Some were vomiting, some had headaches. We had a steady stream of people coming down the stairs with victims in their arms." "We knew we were in a race against time," paramedic Demars said. "We still had to get them to the hospital and we had to treat them. If carbon monoxide isn't cleared from the system, they could come out with permanent brain damage or permanent damage to the respiratory system or their hearts. The kids were not out of the woods, even though were out of the house. My job was to try to assess all 10 people at once, and see who was the worst. I had them all look at me and I said, 'Raise your hand if you think you have to throw up. Now raise your hand if you have a headache. Now raise your hand if you have dizziness.' I knew that the person who raised his hand in response to all three questions was probably in a lot more trouble than the person who had two or only one of the signs and symptoms. Immediately, we routed those who were the sickest to the Hennepin County Medical Center, because they have a decompression chamber there. The people who were slightly less affected went first to Ramsey County Medical Center."
"I thought that all of us could have lost our lives within minutes--perhaps seconds. It was just too close," said Ginny later, although all 10 family members were treated and released without any sign of permanent injury. Tom and Ginny were treated in the emergency room by Dr. John McGill. "Carbon monoxide poisoning is known as the silent killer," McGill said. "It's colorless, odorless, tasteless. And if it had occurred early in the night, they might have slept into unconsciousness and death, so I think they're all lucky to be alive."
An investigation showed that the heat exchanger on the pool furnace had corroded, causing dangerous gases to be blown back into the house. "If you think that you are suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, the absolute first thing to do is to get out of the area," said McGill. "The second is to call 911 or get to a hospital for evaluation."
A month after the near-fatal incident, the memories of that morning were still vivid for the whole large family. "My dad helped us through it all," one of the boys said. "If he hadn't gone down and checked on the furnace and realized what was going on, I probably would have died.
"We're definitely grateful to be alive, and we know that there were several elements of luck or fate that turned our way that morning," Tom said. "I've learned from this experience that we are very vulnerable to our environment, and I hope in some way that my family can be spokespeople about the silent killer that carbon monoxide is." "The rescuers that were here that morning--I'm telling you, I was ready to hug every one of them," said Ginny. "They went right to work and did a superb job. I get goose pimples when I say that because they're great--they're fantastic."
"I think definitely the incident has brought us closer together as a family," said one of Tom and Ginny's daughters. "It's really, really scary to think that we all could have died that morning." "The happiest moment was really seeing everybody okay," said one of their sons, "and I know that if we can get through that, we can get through anything."