ANCHORAGE - A family of five got lucky as they drove down a busy Anchorage street - their car hit a snow bank.
That allowed emergency responders to rescue them Wednesday morning from poisonous carbon monoxide fumes that had seeped into the vehicle, causing the driver to pass out.
"By the grace of God, they plowed into a snow bank and weren't coming up on an intersection when the driver passed out," said police Sgt. Andy Jackson. Additional exposure to the gas would have put the family in greater danger too.
Callers said the Dodge Neon was moving erratically and that the people inside were passed out. Also, the driver's hands were waving shortly before the accident, said Battalion Chief Cleo Hill of the Anchorage Fire Department.
Emergency responders found a mother and several children unconscious or unresponsive near C Street and 15th Avenue, Jackson said.
"Once they were out in the fresh air, everybody came around," Jackson said.
All were taken to a hospital or treated at the scene for dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide. Police did not identify the victims.
Police said that the car's muffler had been damaged.
"The exhaust pipe had been turned, so rather than venting out into the open air, the exhaust pipe itself was actually venting into the trunk, which of course was connected to the inside of the vehicle," Hill said.
The exhaust pipe may have hit a bump or snow berm and been damaged, Honeman said.
The car had been parked outside and it was a "likely possibility" the car had built up the deadly gas while warming up, Honeman said.
It's been about 30 years since Anchorage has seen an accidental vehicle carbon monoxide fatality that took place outdoors, Hill said. For responding paramedics "to suspect carbon monoxide poisoning that quickly ... probably saved lives."
Carbon monoxide is an odorless and tasteless gas that can rapidly cause a person to pass out and die, said Anchorage traffic Sgt. Matt Bloodgood.
When the gas is inhaled, it bonds to red blood cells faster than the cells absorb oxygen, resulting in the oxygen supply being replaced with the deadly chemical. Symptoms of poisoning can include headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and confusion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those symptoms are similar to other minor illnesses and poisonings could be underreported, Bloodgood said.
"How many people driving home from work get a headache?" he said.