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Fire Marshal: 18 confirmed cases of gas/CO leaks in Portsmouth housing complex

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Posted at 9:39 PM, Jul 27, 2012
and last updated 2012-07-27 21:39:12-04

Inez and Leroy Stith never saw it coming--the odorless, colorless gas that Portsmouth Fire officials say killed them.

Now, NewsChannel 3 is learning of over 60 instances in the past three years where fire and emergency crews responded to a potential gas leak or carbon monoxide calls at properties owned by the Portsmouth Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

Of those instances, 27 apartments were found to have issues and the Fire Marshal's office red-tagged faulty equipment that led to the carbon monoxide or gas exposure.

Eighteen of those cases were in Swanson Apartments, where the Stiths lived.

Some of the units had multiple issues from 2011-2012 like at 59 Merrimac Drive, which had carbon monoxide detected five different times that warranted a red tag.

Or 98 Swanson Parkway, which had two carbon monoxide calls and one gas leak that resulted in red tags.

NewsChannel 3 went through mountains of maintenance records after the Stiths' death. Looking at the housing authority's paperwork, the numbers from the fire department just don’t match up to what was reported by workers at Swanson Apartments.

For 59 Merrimac, they only had one of the five red tags attached to the maintenance file for a stove, but no mention of a positive carbon monoxide reading.

For 98 Swanson, NewsChannel 3 could only find the gas leak call, which showed that emergency crews shut off the gas line--none of the 3 red tags were found in their files.

The executive director of the housing authority, Kathy Warren, says whenever an alarm sounds, the fire department comes out, and if something is red tagged, it is fixed immediately.

Still, when it comes to the Stiths' case, the Fire Marshal is still investigating what exactly caused the high levels of carbon monoxide--their newly installed 3-in-1 detector replaced just a month before their deaths did not go off.

According to maintenance records, the couple only reported a gas smell once back in 2011—the majority of their work calls were about  repeated problems with their oven.

It was in their neighbor’s unit right next door that several possible carbon monoxide leaks were reported, with their 3-in-1 carbon monoxide detector going off over and over.

Maintenance came out, but determined there was no CO leak. Inez and Leroy died two months after the last alarm went off.

When we asked Executive Director of PRHA Kathy Warren about what we found, she couldn’t speak on camera, but sent us this response:

"We pride ourselves on being as responsive or more responsive than any other manager of multi-family properties. We keep very detailed and very complete records of everything that happens on our properties. Any implication that we are being derelict in our duty or insensitive to our residents' needs is simply wrong. Our residents' safety is our number one priority."

NewsChannel 3 has learned that the Stith family has alerted the housing authority of a potential lawsuit being filed soon in connection to their deaths.