Hurricane Irma: Generator ran four days before two died of poisoning

Uncomfortably hot, even with a generator running that September morning, a sweaty Keith Kotake reached into the refrigerator for a drink.

The 32-year-old was riding out Hurricane Irma at his parents’ Loxahatchee-area home with them and his uncle. He had to be at work in an hour.

At 7:30 p.m. Sept. 14 — nearly 12 hours later — Kotake awoke feeling as if he were drunk, according to recently released Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office records. He tripped over feces and vomit in the two-story home as he tried to reach his parents. He found his father struggling to get out of bed. His mother lay unconscious in the master bathroom. His uncle sat in a recliner in the living room.

RELATED: Coverage of Hurricane Irma

Carbon-monoxide poisoning caused by running a generator for as many as four days had killed 66-year-old Elaine Kotake, authorities determined. Two days later it would kill her brother-in-law, 74-year-old Johnnie Kotake. Authorities ruled their deaths to be accidental poisonings.

Sheriff’s records describe interviews with Keith Kotake and his father, 73-year-old Chester Kotake, in the hours after they were rescued from the home on Circle D Drive just north of 60th Street.

Keith Kotake managed to call 911 when he released he couldn’t wake his mother. When firefighters entered the home at about 8 that evening, their carbon monoxide alarms went off, according to Palm Beach County Fire Rescue spokesman Capt. Albert Borroto. He said the detectors registered 300 parts per million — more than four times the 70 parts per million level at which poisoning symptoms start to appear.

A 15,000-watt generator turned toward the cracked garage door poisoned the four people inside the home, authorities determined.

Keith Kotake stumbled past that generator, which was not running when crews arrived, to usher firefighters to his mother. Her body, dressed in a blue nightgown curled next to the toilet, was cold to the touch, crews said.

Firefighters grabbed his uncle from a chair in the living room and pulled him outside. Chester Kotake struggled with the firefighters trying to lift him from the vomit-covered bed. He told authorities he felt like he’d been hypnotized.

Crews rushed Chester and Johnnie Kotake to Seminole Ridge High School where they met helicopters that flew them to St. Mary’s Medical Center. They drove Keith Kotake to Palms West Hospital.

Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control authorities took three older dogs — a Pomeranian, a Jack Russell terrier and an American Eskimo — from the home. They were unharmed. The next day they caught one of two cats that reportedly had been in the home.

From a hospital, Chester Kotake told authorities he remembered putting gasoline in the generator the night before his wife died. They’d had the generator running since Hurricane Irma knocked out power nearly four days earlier.

Chester and Keith Kotake survived the carbon monoxide poisoning. They were among more than two dozen Palm Beach County residents poisoned by generators in the wake of Irma, according to county health officials.

Generators should be operated at least 20 feet away from homes in the open air and should never be used in enclosed areas. Even garage doors opened only a few inches is enough space for carbon monoxide — a highly poisonous, odorless, colorless, tasteless gas that interferes with the delivery of oxygen in the blood — to seep into a home.

Staff writer Hannah Winston contributed to this report.

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