Meridian apartment complex was warned about deadly gas

An apartment manager said there were carbon monoxide problems before McQuen Forbush's 2012 death.

kmoeller@idahostatesman.comMay 31, 2013 

FORBUSH.JPG

U.S. Marine McQuen Forbush celebrated with girlfriend, Breanna Halowell, at his boot-camp graduation in September 2012.

PROVIDED BY BREANNA HALOWELL

The toxic level of the colorless, odorless gas that killed an 18-year-old Marine at the Sagecrest Apartments last fall wasn't an isolated incident, according to internal documents from the site's former property management company.

McQuen Forbush, a graduate of Nampa's Columbia High School, died on the floor of an apartment at Sagecrest on Nov. 10. His girlfriend, Breanna Halowell, required hospitalization for treatment of carbon monoxide poisoning.

About a year and a half earlier, two dozen water heaters at the apartments on Overland Road in Meridian were found to be creating "very high carbon monoxide levels," according to a July 28, 2011, email from the property management firm.

Sheila Thomason, then maintenance supervisor at First Rate Property Management, sent the email to the president of the Sagecrest property owners association, Jon Kalsbeek. She said she also emailed the property owners of the two dozen affected units.

A plumber's report attached to the email said some apartments at Sagecrest had tested at "forty times higher than the maximum allowable concentration for continuous exposure to carbon monoxide."

"I would strongly recommend that these issues be solved before any tenants suffer health problems or death," concluded the report by Ben Davis of Express Plumbing.

Thomason told the Statesman on Thursday that she personally distributed CO detectors and letters to those apartments the same day she learned about the high levels of the gas. If no one answered, she left the letter and device hanging on the door handle.

"I wasn't going to go home without doing that," she said.

Her 2011 email to the property owners association pleaded for immediate action.

"I don't think that these 26 water heaters should be left on," she wrote. "I don't think I could live with myself if something happened to one of these tenants or their children, knowing this information."

Neither the email nor the plumber's report list which of the 192 apartments were deemed unsafe, so it's unclear whether the apartment where Forbush died was among them. Forbush and Halowell were just staying the night and did not rent at Sagecrest.

Eric Clark, attorney for Forbush's family, said the tenant of that apartment - No. 24 in Building 46 - had received a letter and CO detector on her door in early 2012, but the water heater was not replaced.

Thomason said she didn't believe the water heater in apartment 4624 was among those tagged in July 2011.

She said it took some time, but all those units received new water heaters. "We couldn't replace them all in one day. That's why we left CO detectors," she said.

Sagecrest has 48 four-plexes. Matthew Switzer owns Building 46, where Forbush died. Switzer's attorney, Michael Haman, said Thursday that he had not seen any documents indicating there was anything wrong with the water heater in 4624 before Forbush's death.

Haman said his client was unaware of any widespread issues with the water heaters at the complex, other than a brief mention of a discussion about water heaters in the meeting minutes of the property owners association.

Verity Property Management now manages Sagecrest. The company relayed the Statesman's request for comment Tuesday to the Sagecrest property owners association, which did not respond.

COURT CLAIMS BLAME OWNERS, INSPECTORS

The report by Davis, the plumber, said the potential for problems at Sagecrest was widespread. Two of three floor plans at the complex have the washer and dryer units in the same closet as the water heater, he said.

Dryer dust and lint have been found to clog the filter at the bottom of the water heater. This can cause myriad issues, including overheating and problems with venting, Davis said.

"Although not all water heaters have been tagged, the potential for the same situation to happen is seen in all floor plans," Davis wrote at the time.

Thomason said she urged the owners association to have cleaning and maintenance performed by a professional every three months. Instead, she said, the association opted to have an employee at the property management firm do the maintenance.

Clark filed a wrongful death suit for the Forbush family in March. The list of defendants includes the property owner, property owners association and property management company, who are all accused of failing to provide a safe living environment and to adequately warn of danger.

Also named in the suit is the water heater designer and maker, AO Smith, which is accused of selling a "dangerous and defective" product.

Clark said the closed-combustion, open-venting water heaters should never have been installed in the complex, and that's why the suit names the contractors and subcontractors who installed the equipment.

The general contractor for the apartments, Sagecrest Development LLC, filed a tort claim May 9 against the city of Meridian. The claim cites the Forbush litigation and notes that the city reviewed and approved the plans and conducted inspections on the building where the young Marine died. The claim says that the city's review and inspection of apartment 4624 was "grossly negligent" and that the city should pay for damages to the builder from the Forbush lawsuit.

It's unclear how many water heaters have been replaced at Sagecrest, although Clark said he'd personally seen about 170 removed. They were inspected at a site near the airport, he said.

Katy Moeller: 377-6413

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