Officials on Monday said the deaths of two women by an apparent carbon monoxide leak were a "very tragic event," adding that the West Rogers Park apartment building had an inadequate number of CO detectors.
Fire crews were initially called to the building, on the 2500 block of West North Shore Avenue, shortly after 10:30 a.m. Sunday and found 77-year-old Rasheeda Akhter in cardiac arrest. Another woman, 18-year-old Zanib Ahmed, was also found to be suffering from seizures.
Both women were rushed to Swedish Covenant Hospital. First responders, suspecting CO poisoning, did a sweep of the building.
"They did, they came out and they scoured the who apartment, the whole building, and they couldn't find anything," said Choudary Norman, whose family owns the building.
The fire department left but was called back roughly five hours later when Norman's mother,
Khurshid Begum, was unresponsive. A second check revealed higher levels of carbon monoxide.
"The readings were still on the low side, but they were high enough to mandate calling the gas company," said Asst. Fire Chief Mark Nielsen.
Begum survived, but Akhter and Ahmed did not. Akhter was pronounced dead at 11:14 a.m., according to the Cook County Medical Examiner's office. Ahmed died Sunday evening.
A 12-year-old girl also was taken in critical condition. Her condition stabilized by Monday morning, family members said. Four other children were hospitalized for observation.
"We believe it to be low-dose, long-term exposure," said Nielsen.
A chief symptom of carbon monoxide poisoning is a headache, and sources close to the investigation told NBC Chicago there had been complaints of residents getting headaches in the basement laundry room and that the solution was to open a window. Fire officials said they believe it's quite possible that window prevented the building's lone carbon monoxide detector from ever getting an accurate reading.
The boiler was also old and suggested it had not been properly maintained, fire officials said.
Nationwide, there are about 500 deaths related to carbon monoxide poisoning each year. Another 15,000 people visit the emergency room with symptoms.
"I know exactly what they're going through," Chicagoan Mike Robb said of the relatives of the latest victims.
Robb lost his twin sister and two nieces to carbon monoxide poisoning in 2000. Since then, the city has toughened its law, requiring that carbon monoxide detectors be installed no more than 15 feet away from each bedroom or sleeping area.
Robb said the city now needs to step up enforcement and awareness.
"Send out notices, fliers... put it on their tax bills, something," he said.
Detectors with digital read-outs do a better job of detecting carbon monoxide, fire officials said.