NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — The Norfolk Fire Marshal’s Office has found that a boiler leaking gas led to the carbon monoxide poisoning and death of a woman inside a public housing unit in December.
10 On Your Side obtained a copy of the Norfolk Fire Marshal’s investigation into the death of Ariel Cherry. The 31-year-old woman died of carbon monoxide poisoning inside of an Oakleaf Forest housing unit on Dec. 20. Oakleaf Forest is a public housing community that is managed by the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
10 On Your Side investigators requested comment from the NRHA for this story, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
The Norfolk Fire Marshal’s report shows that someone called 911 around 11:30 p.m. on Dec. 20 after they found Cherry unresponsive in her bed. Norfolk Fire-Rescue responded to the home in the 1700 block of Greenleaf Drive. When they entered the home, a carbon monoxide monitor attached to their medical jump bag alerted them to high levels of the poisonous gas inside of the house, according to the Norfolk Fire Marshal’s investigation.
Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that can be used to fuel appliances, such as boilers and stoves. Exposure to elevated levels of carbon monoxide can be deadly.
Carbon monoxide is measured in parts per million. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, no standard measurement of safe levels of carbon monoxide in the air has been approved for indoor spaces; however, a home with a properly functioning gas stove will have levels of between 5 and 15 parts per million on average.
Norfolk Fire-Rescue measured the level of carbon monoxide inside Cherry’s home at 370 parts per million when they initially arrived on the scene. That measurement is 24 times higher than the highest average measurement of carbon monoxide that is expected in a home that has a properly functioning gas stove, according to the EPA.
Cherry was pronounced dead at the scene. Norfolk Fire-Rescue ordered an emergency evacuation for eight Oakleaf Forest homes where they also measured high levels of carbon monoxide, and other residents were treated by medical professionals, according to the Norfolk Fire Marshal’s investigation.
Emergency responders found the source of the gas leak when they forced open a door to a mechanical room next to Cherry’s apartment. Inside the mechanical room, they found a working carbon monoxide detector that was “chirping” due to high levels of gas in the area of the boiler, which was fueled by natural gas. The carbon monoxide levels measured at more than 500 parts per million inside the mechanical room, according to the fire marshal’s investigation.
Investigators noted that there were no gas-fueled appliances in Cherry’s apartment. All of the unit’s appliances were electric, and the only gas-powered appliance was the boiler in the adjacent mechanical room, which was used as a heating source for Oakleaf Forest units.
The NRHA’s maintenance team removed the boiler and replaced it the following day. The investigation showed that the boiler was about 20 years old. A maintenance order to inspect boilers for proper function across Oakleaf Forest was last issued on Nov. 19, 2020. That order was completed by Dec. 9, less than a month later, according to the Norfolk Fire Marshal’s report.
The Norfolk Fire Marshal’s Office spoke with a Virginia Natural Gas representative who said that the supply line was operating normally. That VNG representative said that the gas service lines attached to the boiler were the NRHA’s responsibility.
10 On Your Side investigators asked the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development if they are investigating Cherry’s death. Spokesperson Nika Edwards provided the following statement:
“This is a tragedy. We offer our condolences to the grieving family. This matter is being handled by NRHA.”