A supermarket bakery employee, her husband and three others were found dead inside a suburban Washington home Tuesday of suspected carbon monoxide poisoning, rattling a close-knit community of immigrant churchgoers who wept, hugged and comforted each other outside.
Fire officials blamed the deaths on a broken exhaust pipe that pumped carbon monoxide back into the home.
Two of the dead were discovered by a relative who went to the home Tuesday morning, concerned for his family's welfare. The other three were found soon after by firefighters who measured levels of carbon monoxide so high as to lead to death within mere hours, said Mark Brady, a spokesman for the Prince George's County fire department. A dog also was removed from the home on oxygen support.
The victims, all adults who lived in the one-story brick home in the suburb of Oxon Hill, are a husband, a wife, her sister and two boarders. Neighbors had last seen them Monday evening. At least some of them were originally from El Salvador.
Officials identified the victims as: Oscar Chavez, 57; his wife, Sonia Chavez, 54; her sister, Nora N. Leiva, 57, of Chicago; Francisco Javier Gomez Segovia of Fairfax, Va., 33, and Nelson Enrique Landaverde Alas, 44.
Authorities said the investigation was centering on a broken exhaust pipe that showed signs of significant wear and tear, including holes that appeared capable of letting unhealthy levels of carbon monoxide seep back into the home instead of ventilating it back into the atmosphere. A recent cold snap might have accounted for the furnace being operational, Brady said.
Firefighters detected extraordinarily high levels of carbon monoxide in the home, Brady added. A normal carbon monoxide reading is 0 to 5 parts per million and the reading taken at the home measured as high as 550 parts per million. No carbon monoxide detector was found at the house, the only way to be alerted to the odorless gas.
"Someone exposed to CO at that high a level could succumb probably within a couple of hours," Brady said.
Public records indicated that Sonia M. Chavez and Oscar A. Chavez lived in the home, which was built in 1955 and purchased by the woman in 2010. Oscar Chavez's son told reporters that he found the bodies after arriving at the couple's home Tuesday.
Members of the victims' close-knit Spanish-speaking Pentecostal church embraced each other and Chavez's son as they stood behind yellow police tape. One woman, who would not give her name, said she took comfort that the victims were with God.
Jose Rosales, who is from El Salvador and who was among those at the scene Tuesday, said several of the victims were active in the same church. Oscar Chavez was a church leader, Sonia Chavez worked with children, and a third victim, Nelson Landaverde, performed music for the congregation.
"I didn't believe it. I said, `I have to see,'" Rosales said of a phone call telling him about the deaths. "I had no explanation of how this all happened. I came here to find out."
Ramon Nunoz, who lives across the street, said the married couple was originally from El Salvador and the man worked in construction.
"They were good people. I'm very sad that this happened," Nunoz said.
Ruben Rodriguez, a Washington Gas spokesman, said firefighters shut off natural gas service to the home Tuesday. Washington Gas will conduct its own investigation of the gas meter and gas lines, Rodriguez said.
Giant Food, where Sonia Chavez worked, issued a statement: "We are deeply saddened to learn of the death of Sonia Chavez, a long-time Giant associate who worked in the bakery at our Eastover, Md. store for nearly ten years. "
The statement added: "Our thoughts and prayers are with Sonia's family and friends during this difficult time. We are currently communicating this tragic news to Sonia's co-workers and will offer grief counseling to associates who may need additional support."
Associated Press writer Ben Nuckols contributed to this report from Washington.