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Water heater at Kings Point academy still out

An exterior view of the U.S. Merchant Marine

An exterior view of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point. (Jan. 9, 2011) Credit: Howard Schnapp

A water-heating system serving two barracks at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point remains offline after a Jan. 8 nighttime carbon-monoxide scare, and it may take five more weeks to get a permanent one installed.

Thirty-nine midshipmen were taken to hospitals after fire officials discovered high levels of the odorless, colorless gas in Barry and Jones halls, which serve as dorms for academy students.

The problem was originally believed to be with a water heater, but a broken air duct in the ventilation system caused the leak, said Kim Riddle, acting public affairs director for U.S. Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration, which oversees the federal service academy.

A blower that pulls in air to be heated and then pushed through vents wasn't taking air from the outside, but rather sucking it in from the utility room, which caused the flame on a nearby water heater to burn out its electrical components. The flame "destroyed that system," Riddle said about the water heater.

Soot, carbon monoxide and unburned natural gas were not expelled through a chimney, but instead were sucked into the ventilation system, Riddle said.

Just about 9 that night, midshipmen reported feeling nauseated and dizzy.

Several fire departments responded to check the buildings and evaluate students.

Patients tested at the scene had carbon monoxide levels in their blood ranging from 10 to 27 percent, Great Neck Vigilant Fire Co. Chief Laurence Jacobs said at the time. Of the 39 taken to hospitals, four required hyperbaric oxygen treatment.

After the incident, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened an inspection. That inspection is ongoing, OSHA spokesman Ted Fitzgerald said.

Every student who went to hospitals attended classes the next day and had follow-up health appointments at the academy's clinic, Riddle said.

Every vent and filter in Barry Hall was scrubbed clean and midshipmen are using in-room heaters, which keep temperatures between 65 and 68 degrees.

Hot water was initially piped in from other buildings to serve Barry and Jones halls, but could not provide consistently hot water, so a temporary heating system is in place until a new water heater can be installed, Riddle said.

A new system, which will require some engineering, should be installed in about five weeks, she said.

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