ST. PETERSBURG — Before bed Thursday night, Veronica Rojas popped some Tylenol for what she thought was a passing headache.
But hours later, she awoke to chaos. Her fiance, Ernest Dickson, was calling 911, her children were crying and throwing up, and her headache had exploded into a painful migraine.
As the couple and their five children left the house — Dickson crawling over the threshold because he was so weak — it didn't occur to them that the portable generator in the garage was the source of their symptoms. Since they turned it on Thursday evening, it had been spewing poisonous carbon monoxide fumes into the house through a hole in the attic.
Crews from St. Petersburg Fire Rescue responded to the house at 2701 Fifth St. S, shortly after 4 a.m. and took Dickson, 22, and Rojas, 30, to Bayfront Health St. Petersburg. The children, ranging in age from 15 months to 12 years old, were taken to All Children's Hospital for evaluation. They were released by mid-morning. They were all okay.
"I'm just thankful that we made it out alive and just in time," Dickson said. "If we had waited just another hour, we would've been dead."
Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas produced from burning fuel. Some symptoms of poisoning from the fumes include headache, nausea and dizziness — all experienced by the family.
The generator was supposed to be a temporary fix. The couple said they couldn't afford to pay an electric bill that shot up to almost $900 after family members of Rojas came to stay with them.
Suzanne Grant, a spokeswoman for Duke Energy, said she couldn't comment on specific accounts. But the company does "work with customers on payment arrangement for deposits (when setting up new accounts) and for past due balances," she wrote in an email. "For example, if … there is an issue with a past due balance, funds owed due to energy theft, etc., we'll ask the new customer for a lease or other documentation showing that they aren't responsible for past charges at that address."
Without electricity, Dickson and Rojas bought the generator from Lowe's for $300, placed it in the garage and opened the windows, thinking that would be enough ventilation.
"And that was a big mistake," Dickson said from his home Friday morning as he wiped throw-up off the floor and grabbed milk jugs from the dark refrigerator.
Blocks away at Dickson's grandmother's house, Rojas was with the children — Derian Brown, 12, Adrian Brown, 10, Izaiah Brown, 9, Jeziyah Small, 3, and Ja'zaria Dickson, 15 months. They still had on the clothes they were wearing as they rushed from the house, including a bare-chested Izaiah who didn't have time to grab a shirt.
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"I thought it was a nightmare," Derian said, twirling his hospital band around his wrist.
"Oh baby," Rojas said, shaking her head.
As a mother, Rojas recalled being especially scared for her kids. While they all made it out safely, she soon found out that she lost an unborn child after learning she was pregnant just last week. She guessed it was from a combination of the carbon monoxide and the stress.
Family members came in and out of the grandmother's house with food and encouraging words for the mother and her kids. Virginia Turner, Dickson's grandmother, described the family as a tight knit group, and it showed.
Dickson said he was able to pay off the bill by Friday afternoon with donations from family members as well as a loan. Once the power turns back on, the family will be able to move back into the house, which was deemed safe to live in.
On Monday, they have appointments back at the hospital to check for any complications. Carbon monoxide poisoning can cause permanent damage to the heart and brain. But the family hopes it won't come to that.
"This is a lesson learned that is never going to be repeated again," Rojas said.
And as for the generator?
"I will never work with one again in my life," she said.
Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @kathrynvarn.