c/o Sida Chu

c/o Sida Chu

On the evening of Saturday, Feb. 17, a senior house on Brainerd Avenue had a carbon monoxide leak, leading to an evacuation of the building.

Debbra Goh ’24, the only resident who had been staying in her house on Brainerd Avenue for an extended period of time that day, recounted having a headache and feeling dizzy. At around 6:30 p.m., her housemates—Florina Sutanto ’24, Hannah McKiernan ’24, and Talia Rodriguez ’24—returned and immediately noticed an odd smell (although carbon monoxide does not have an odor). Shortly afterward, the carbon monoxide alarm installed in the house went off.

“There was a loud beeping and a voice that repeated something like ‘carbon monoxide detected, please evacuate,’” Sutanto wrote in a message to The Argus.

Having no experience with a carbon monoxide leak, the students quickly evacuated the house and phoned Public Safety (PSafe), who in turn informed Physical Plant and the Middletown Fire Department. Due to the hastiness of the evacuation, the students were not prepared for the freezing temperature outside and had to leave important belongings behind.

“All of us were dressed horribly for the weather,” McKiernan said. 

Echoing McKiernan’s comment, Goh added that PSafe officers did their preliminary investigation with the students standing outside in the cold.

“Some of us were not fully clothed and I did not have my shoes on,” Goh wrote in a message to The Argus. “It was below freezing that night, and the wind was really strong too. PSafe was trying to get our information and WesIDs, and at that point I could not feel my toes anymore. I think the officers should have been more aware and brought us into another location [or] their vehicles instead of doing it on the street amidst piles of snow.”

Once at the scene, the Middletown Fire Department confirmed that the level of carbon monoxide in the house was dangerously high. PSafe officers began to search for the source, opening windows and doors to ventilate the house. Only then did the officers allow the residents to leave the premises, instructing them to wait at a friend’s house while the carbon monoxide was being aired out.

During their search, the fire department discovered that the boiler was not working and that the heat and hot water systems were shut off, giving rise to the gas-like smell that the students first noticed.

“There was a bunch of soot forming while the oil was burning, and that was clogging up the tubes that the carbon monoxide was meant to go out of, so it got completely clogged and smoke and carbon monoxide were leaking out of the sides into the room,” McKiernan said. 

After an inspection of the house while the students were away, Physical Plant staff assured the students that carbon monoxide levels were back to normal as indicated by the detector and that it was safe to return to the house. However, upon returning, the students noted that the house still had a strong gas smell.

“After PSafe told us it was safe to go back, Hannah and I went back to scout the house,” Sutanto said. “We discovered that at least one room—the bedroom on the first floor—was sealed. They didn’t make sure to air out the house. As Hannah and I opened the windows, I got dizzy.”

Given the lingering safety concern, none of the residents returned to sleep at the house that night.

“It was late, and I was already in an alternative location for the night,” Goh wrote. “[McKiernan and Sutanto] went home to check it out and they said it smelled really strongly, so none of us felt safe sleeping there overnight. I was concerned we would die from carbon monoxide poisoning in our sleep honestly. We all slept elsewhere that night.”

According to the students, no one from the administration reached out to them for the rest of the night and the morning after, even though the smell of gas remained until the next day.

“We aired out the house overnight but were concerned the pipes might freeze, like ResLife had warned us, especially because Physical Plant shut off the boiler,” Sutanto wrote. “We were also unsure how long it’d take us to fully air the house out (since it still smelled like gas the next morning) or whether we’d get the heater fixed in time.” 

In the end, the students had to reach back out to the administration to clear up their confusion.

“We were the ones who had to actively pursue information and answers,” Goh wrote. “On Sunday, when we wanted to return to the house, my housemate Hannah had to personally go down to the PSafe office to ask them about what exactly happened to the house and how we could be certain that it would be safe for us to return.” 

Upon McKiernan’s request, Director of Physical Plant Operations Mike Conte visited the house on the afternoon of Sunday, Feb. 18 to show the residents what went wrong and what was done to fix the issue. In the basement, Conte explained that the old oil boiler of the house had led to incomplete combustion of the oil and generated carbon monoxide. 

“[Conte] said the boilers should be maintained every year to prevent incidents like this from happening, but I guess they missed our house or something,” Goh wrote. 

In an email to The Argus, Campus Reporter and Media Relations Specialist Mike Mavredakis wrote on behalf of Physical Plant that all heating systems are checked regularly.

“Wood frame heating appliances are maintained based on the type of equipment,” Mavredakis wrote. “Natural gas fired equipment is visually inspected annually and opened for preventative maintenance every two years. Units that use oil are maintained annually.”

As for fire and carbon monoxide detectors, there are variations in how the systems are set up.

“Nearly all our wood frames and dorms have carbon monoxide detection on their fire systems,” Mavredakis wrote. “Residential buildings that use oil or natural gas for heating have appropriate carbon monoxide detection systems. All monitored campus fire detection systems are inspected and tested annually.”

Conte also told the house’s residents that he had informed the Office of Residential Life (ResLife), who would email to check in with the students. However, at the time of this article’s publication—more than a month after the incident—the students have not yet heard from ResLife.

Looking back at the incident, the students commended the promptness of response from PSafe, Physical Plant, and the Middletown Fire Department.

“PSafe and Physical Plant were quick to respond considering it was a Saturday night and kept us in the loop as best as they could,” Sutanto wrote.

However, all residents were disappointed by the lack of action from ResLife.

“PSafe, Physical plant, and the firefighters were super nice,” Rodriguez wrote in a message to The Argus. “But [it’s] strange that ResLife and/or the [administration] didn’t check in with us. “

Sutanto concurred with Rodriguez’s sentiment.

“ResLife made zero contact, communication, or arrangements,” Sutanto wrote. “ResLife failed their jobs and I can’t believe there isn’t a protocol of communication between PSafe, the CA [community advisor] (who lives on our street), the Area Coordinator, and the ResLife office. At the bare minimum I would’ve expected the CA to check in on us since there were [two] firetrucks and a couple of Psafe and Physical Plant cars on our street.”

Goh also recounted that because of her headache and dizziness, the fire department asked her if she wanted to be transported to the emergency room (ER).

“That felt a little dramatic and expensive so I told them I’ll just wait it out in the fresh, non-carbon monoxide, air and see if I felt better after that,” Goh wrote. “The fire department got me to sign a waiver refusing medical treatment since I didn’t want to go to the ER, and I did that in front of the [three] Psafe officers who were at the scene.”

Although she fortunately did not have any lasting problems, nobody from the University has followed up with her. Given the potential severity of a carbon monoxide leak, the students felt that their health and safety were neglected by the University.

“I was surprised that no one from Wes ever followed up with me about that in the following hours or days, and no one from ResLife or PSafe ever checked in with me to make sure I wasn’t feeling any lingering effects from the house,” Goh wrote. “Carbon monoxide can be serious, and deadly, and I would have expected greater concern from the school, especially since this issue arose due to an infrastructure issue with maintaining the boiler.”

Addressing student concerns, Mavredakis said that ResLife responds to emergency incidents with appropriate measures.

“In any emergency, the local fire department and Public Safety will…work with other University staff, including Physical Plant and Residential Life, to establish a follow-up plan,” Mavredakis wrote. “The goal is always to return students to their residences swiftly once University officials have determined they can return safely. If students need to relocate, they are given the option to stay with friends or receive a temporary assignment from our office.”

In addition to complaints about the lack of communication between various student-facing departments on campus, the residents of the house also had concerns about the efficacy of the carbon monoxide detector.

“To my understanding, the alarm didn’t trigger a call to PSafe or the fire department…which feels like a hazard,” Sutanto wrote. “I didn’t have my phone with me, but luckily someone else did…. Just know that when you burn something in the kitchen, it triggers the whole shebang, but when a real gas leak happens in your house, you have to call PSafe yourself.”

Goh also expressed concerns about the low volume level of the alarm.

“The alarm was honestly not very loud or noticeable, and I wonder if we would have slept through it if it happened at night instead of during dinner time when we were all awake,” Goh said. 

The students argued that on top of providing an initial inconvenience, the combination of infrastructural problems and the administration’s failure to communicate actively has made a lasting impact on their perception of campus safety.  

“It totally threw my weekend into absolute chaos,” Goh wrote. “I don’t think any of us got our homework done that weekend…. I’m now paranoid of a similar issue happening when I visit other wood frame houses.”

Since this incident, a senior house on Pine Street experienced a similar situation of carbon monoxide leakage on Tuesday, March 5, which caused the second evacuation this semester. Mavredakis confirmed that both alarms were caused by the same issue.

“The Middletown Fire Department and Physical Plant responded to carbon monoxide alarms at [both the Brainerd Avenue and Pine Street houses],” Mavredakis wrote. “All occupants were evacuated, the problems were corrected, and residents were allowed to return to their units when it was safe to do so—as is the standard protocol. In both cases, the root cause was a leak in the boiler of each unit.”

Despite the frenzy, the residents of the Brainerd Avenue house expressed their gratitude for the friends who took them in for the night after they were evacuated.

“We were all lucky to have friends who were kind enough to take us in for the night and lend us clothes, supplies, and food,” Sutanto wrote. 

Rodriguez agreed, highlighting the support the students received from the community during the incident.

“[It] definitely…was scary but I was glad we had friends to help us through it,” Rodriguez wrote. “The University made sure we stayed alive but they didn’t necessarily care that we were safe.”


Hannah McKiernan is the podcast editor for The Argus. 

Sida Chu can be reached at schu@wesleyan.edu.

Spencer Landers can be reached at sklanders@wesleyan.edu.