Julie and I were sure we smelled gas.
She’d never been to my house before, and I took her fresh concept of the scent of my home’s interior to heart. I knew she’d likely identify the cauliflower residue and whatever was lurking in the bottom of the kitchen bin, and say nothing; after all, Julie was a cleaning lady. But, the gas…yeah; we knew it was coming from somewhere.
When she left, I called National Fuel. The guy came right over. And, he found it right away, too….escaping from a loose pipe flange behind the stove. How did this happen? Oh; age, he said. My heart jumped.
This house had been built in 1895, likely by the Hogans who worked for landowner Catherine Berst. Her Italian villa still stands on the corner two blocks north, occupied by a short man who drives a dark green Cadillac de Ville.
I’d bought 2201 one night in March of ’89, during a fever. Meaning: it was night, and I had a fever. The next day, I’d driven past and seen what it looked like from the outside. The rest is, well, the history of me and my spouse, this house.
Now, two weeks since the pipe leak, my already-increasing headaches persisted. Plus, I was strangely and perniciously depressed. (hence, the many and consecutive morbid blog topics). So, yesterday morning, when a National Fuel van appeared across the street, I took my cue and dialed them up again; it was time to do a deep check of the entire house.
The kid on the other end was a hardliner. Did I smell gas? There’d been a leak two weeks prior. Did he fix it? Did I have a carbon monoxide detector? I thought so; I had a full wireless alarm system with recording cameras and sensors and two wall mounted detectors. No; the gas company could not send anybody out to check anything unless I smelled it, and no; the other driver could not walk across the street to service me unless he’d been dispatched to my address.
Foggily, I replied that I guessed I’d call back later, and hung up. Then, I went into my bedroom and fell sleep.
The first sound was a humming truck, then multiple two-way radio comms and somebody slamming at my side entry door. Crawling out, I peeked to see; sure enough, there sat a firetruck, dispensing five firemen in full yellow mylar oversuits and boots and large hand-held devices. Actually, one of them was a woman.
Aha. A hardliner with a heart, that boy on the phone.
In they tromped, across the freshly-fallen lake effect snow, filling my whole kitchen with their large and laden bodies. Where was the leak? Was this the basement door?
My pajamas were torn right across the crotch. I stood like a street urchin, trying to cover myself with as much fabric as I could gather. I thanked them for coming, and asked that they check my whole, old house for leaks wherever they could look.
Down to the cellar the whole crew rumbled.
Five minutes later, that fire brigade rumbled back up the cellar steps and declared the house free of leaks. Their head guy asked me to sign a yellow carbon copy emblazoned across the top: NOTICE OF DANGEROUS SITUATION-CARBON MONOXIDE ALARM EMERGENCY-LEVEL OF -0-WAS DISCOVERED , and away they went in their big truck.
Wearily, I set about completing my next task: calling Verizon about the untraceable nuisance caller who’d been dialing every single night at 12:41 am and ringing once. Within minutes, there was a small knock at the back door. Thinking it might be my neighbor, me in torn pajamas, I got set to ignore the whole thing. Something, probably my mother and father and both grandparents and Uncle Frank and Aunt Dora Mae and Harry, who had been mom’s physician’s assistant, told me to check anyway.
Through the window, a bespectacled head, wearing a hard hat. National Fuel, he said. I told him the fire department had just given the all clear. He didn’t budge. He said he was required to follow up. I let him in, pointed to the cellar door, and began my intimate relationship with Verizon’s automated phone system.
In less than four minutes, and just as I had reached a live operator, Mike reappeared at my kitchen doorway. Ma’am? I’m on with Verizon, be with you in a minute. Ma’am? I’m almost done. Ma’am. You have a problem.
I hung up the phone. Ma’am, your water heater is pouring Carbon Monoxide all over your basement. The flue is blocked, and the lid of the heater is melted. There’s dirt, some kind of nest, in your flue. I turned off the heater, and I suggest you get a plumber in here as soon as possible to repair it. You might want to get your blood tested. Oh; and, I’d call the fire department back – and complain.
The time was roughly 11:28 am. It took 2 hours and 14 minutes for the fax not to arrive in the lab, the doc’s receptionist to say that she couldn’t interrupt a nurses meeting and then tell me later that the docs all agreed that a CO test had to be administered in an ER rather than a lab, me to get to the clogged ER, their nursing supervisor to put the O-level clamp on my index finger and declare that my CO2 levels were low but that blood testing would be more specific, but, me to go back to the lab because the lab had SAID they could courier the results to the hospital and waiting in the ER would take longer, my blood to be drawn, me to call a plumber, me to get home to wait for the plumber, the phone to ring saying the lab used the wrong color vial and could I come back for a redraw, me to say I had to wait for the plumber, the plumber to come and dig the dead bird and the nest out of the flue/repair the flue/and, reset the water heater, and me to go back to the lab for the CO blood re-draw.
CO levels in my blood would prove “within acceptable limits.” This, after nearly three hours of elapsed time, was no surprise. The plumber’d said that, even if my smoke alarm did also test for CO, it never would have detected the leak until there was enough in the diningroom to set it off. But, he said, given the amount of CO in the air down there, had I been in the habit of leaving my cellar door ajar, the gas would have filled the first floor and killed me within ten minutes.
. . .
I slept fitfully last night. Several lucid dreams. Questions for the jury:
How does a home alarm system that offers a wall unit, key fobs, motion sensors, recording cameras, and smoke alarms NOT include a CO detector?
How does National Fuel, a utility company that visits each home quarterly to read meters, not require that their service personnel check for CO leaks?
How does a crew of five from the Fire Department miss such a massive leak, when they advertise on their lapels that they check for CO?
How does the government not mandate that every home be equipped with a functioning CO detector, placed in proximity to all possible leak sites?
How does a team of physicians not know that a CO blood draw can be provided by a diagnostic lab complete with courier?
How does an ER nurse miss the distinction between CO and CO2?
Had Mike from National Fuel not followed up to check after the fire department’s visit, within a matter of days I might have spent hours finishing the back up of laundry stacked in the basement, that cellar door wide open the whole time. He’d been sure to investigate the whole situation thoroughly before preparing the report. As he sat in his truck to complete it, I’d gone to clean the snow off my car in prep for my trip to the lab. We convened on the sidewalk, shivering in the snow. Trembling, I signed the form. Then, I began to cry. I reached up and threw my arms around Mike and hugged him tight.
This week, the fracking industry caved its stock profits. Corporate America may see its citizenry make a major shake up. Verizon has yet to find the source of many of its problems, including my nuisance caller. You can call it the luck of the draw on an ordinary work day, but Mike from National Fuel is getting flowers; it isn’t every day you get to meet the person hand-picked to save your life.
Ruth Ann Scanzillo 12/12/14