Custodian tells of gas leak

Friday, August 27, 2010

A custodian who had a contract with Columbia State Community College has told Lewisburg officials some of what he knows about when carbon monoxide fumes leaked and dozens of people were sickened. Now, the city sees the custodian's information as laying liability for medical bills at the state's door.

However, City Manager Eddie Fuller concedes that Kerry Brown, 53, of Woodlawn Avenue, might not be seen as the best source of information since the college discontinued Brown's contract. He might be seen as a disgruntled ex-employee. Still, Brown had been told not to discuss the carbon monoxide fumes, according to information acquired by the city.

Columbia State Community College on Thursday expanded its previous statement denying liability and, addressing the issue of a former college employee explaining what happened, CSCC said, "The city had full responsibility in the past and continues to have full responsibility today for any adverse effects of improper maintenance or malfunctioning equipment. Furthermore, because the leak was not caused by the actions of any employee of the college, any personnel action taken by the college has no relationship to the leak incident."

At stake are medical bills; more than $2,700 for one young man who's no longer a community college student. Estimates of the number of people affected by the carbon monoxide range from about a dozen to perhaps 30.

Faris Beard of Belfast and her son Brian Cuff, 19, of Franklin Road, a former CSCC student and part-time help at the college, say medical service providers want payment for the bills incurred because of Cuff's exposure. Beard calls it poisoning. Both say while the city and the college point at each other Cuff's credit rating is being ruined through no fault of his own and there are other students in the same situation.

Brown called Fuller on the morning of Aug. 20, or one week ago today.

He wanted to meet with Fuller "and share information as to what happened" at the college on April 8, the city manager wrote in a file memo. Brown told Fuller he's followed a college official's directions and worked on the college's heating and cooling system, even though he's not certified for that kind of work. Furthermore, the campus director told him not to speak with anyone investigating the April 8 incident, Fuller's memo states.

Lewisburg Police Detective James Johnson was assigned to investigate the carbon monoxide fumes.

"Brown told me his contract at Columbia State Community College had not been renewed because he had asked about medical care for headaches he believed were related to an incident involving a carbon monoxide discharge at the school," Johnson wrote in his report.

"Brown stated he had been told by the school administrator, Elizabeth McDow, what to say when he was questioned by police," Johnson wrote. "Brown stated he was made to feel by McDow that if he told the whole truth when questioned by police he would have been terminated from employment at the school."

McDow has consistently referred questions about the incident to the college's communications director.

Detective Sgt. David Henley reported the same thing and added, "Brown stated he wanted to come clean about his involvement in the incident."

Previous reports on the fumes leaking from the college building's boiler room included photos with one showing a gas can stored on a ladder with both leaned against an electric space heater.

"Brown told city officials that he knew some other college employees, on the day before the fumes leak, brought in a pressure washer and the gas can," Fuller said Wednesday.

The pressure washer was to be put in the room with the furnace, but the ladder was stored there in a way that prevented someone from rolling the pressure washer into the room.

"They had to move the ladder out of the way," Fuller explained, saying it was moved from a diagonal position to one parallel to the wall, "so they could roll in the pressure washer."

Moving the ladder is suspected as the time when the exhaust pipe was knocked from a rubber boot-like fixture used to hold the pipe in place.

Cuff, now a former student, has reported he had to breath oxygen overnight at Maury Regional Medical Center. And, according to police and Fuller, Brown needed treatment at Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville because of his exposure to the gas.

Brown was contacted for comment directly and he replied, "I don't know how much I can say." He did confirm his identity with age and address. There are "about three Kerry Browns in the county," he said.

Paul Hickey, spokesman for CSCC, provided the college's statement, which follows in its entirety.

"Columbia State stands by the previous statement that it provided last week. As the College has reported before, the Tennessee Board of Regents Facilities Office investigated the leak incident, including reviewing all relevant documents and pictures and thoroughly inspecting the campus facility.

The State of Tennessee Claims Division also reviewed the leak incident. Both offices determined that the City, as the owner of the facility at which the leak occurred and the entity responsible for the maintenance of the facility, including the responsibility to provide maintenance to the heating and cooling system, was responsible for the carbon monoxide leak by failing to maintain the heating and cooling related equipment that caused the leak and allowing the carbon monoxide to travel to other parts of the building through a hole cut in the ceiling by one of its contractors.

The investigations also revealed that there was absolutely no evidence that the ladder located in the boiler room in any way caused the leak. Based on the Division of Claim's decision, the Division of Claims Administration determined that it could not justify the expenditure of state taxpayer dollars to pay for claims which it determined were not the state's responsibility and informed students who had filed claims to present the claim to the Office of the City Manager, City of Lewisburg.

The City had full responsibility in the past and continues to have full responsibility today for any adverse effects of improper maintenance or malfunctioning equipment. Furthermore, because the leak was not caused by the actions of any employee of the College, any personnel action taken by the College has no relationship to the leak incident. The College continues to reach out to the City in an attempt to secure a resolution of this matter for the benefit of the students who were harmed by the leak."