A deteriorated ventilation system for a propane-fueled generator appears to have contributed to the deaths of a Pennsylvania couple who most likely succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning at their summer home in Raymond after Tropical Storm Irene.
The bodies of Lewis Somers III, 85, and his wife, Elizabeth Somers, 84, were discovered Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. Firefighters reported extremely high levels of carbon monoxide in the home when they arrived.
The couple is among the 45 deaths attributed to Irene in its march up the Eastern Seaboard.
Elizabeth Somers was found sitting in a chair in the first-floor bedroom of the two-story house, and Lewis Somers was found in the living room by a neighbor, who pulled him onto the porch, but it was too late. Authorities suspect the couple, from Lafayette Hill, Penn., had been dead for some time.
Friends described the couple as extremely friendly. Elizabeth Somers was involved in several charity efforts in Raymond and with the choir at the church she attended. Lewis Somers was a successful entrepreneur and innovator and a philanthropist who supported education. Although he had been on dialysis in recent years, he and his wife were otherwise in good health, friends said.
They had apparently been using the generator since power went out during the storm. The state medical examiner said the cause and time of death had not yet been established.
The generator was a high-quality model that had been installed in the basement when the house was built in the 1980s, said Capt. Jeff Davis of the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office, which is investigating the deaths. The device was equipped with a ventilation system that carried the exhaust through the basement wall and outside.
Over the years, cracks developed in the flexible metal hose used to vent the fumes, he said. Outside the house, a metal ventilation pipe went underground and into a 55-gallon drum before ultimately venting above ground. Over time, a portion of that section of the system collapsed, blocking the release of exhaust and apparently causing it to back up into the basement, Davis said.
The sheriff’s office has worked with an inspector from the state Oil and Solid Fuel Board on the investigation. The generator seems the likely suspect, but other propane appliances also will be checked, Davis said.
Investigators have not been able to locate a carbon monoxide detector, he said. The home does have a security system, but investigators have not been able to determine whether it has the ability to detect carbon monoxide.
The colorless, odorless gas initially leads to flu-like symptoms of headaches and nausea before eventually causing unconsciousness and death.
Dr. Karen Simone, director of the Northern New England Poison Center, said the tragedy demonstrates that people should get appliances that burn any kind of fuel — propane, wood, natural gas, oil — checked periodically to make sure they are operating as intended.
The Somerses had been coming to the Raymond area for years, and their children went to summer camp there.
“They were just the kind of couple that was always happy to meet new people and always smiling,” said Phyllis Burnham, who runs Wind in Pines resort where the couple summered for many years before building their own place in Raymond. “I talked to Betty at the post office just about a week or 10 days ago and she said everything was going well.”
The couple had three children who stayed at the resort when they were teenagers, Burnham recalled.
She described Elizabeth Somers as “very chatty and very friendly” and said she was involved in church activities and other charitable work. She said Lewis Somers was “just the greatest guy on the planet, very friendly and very helpful.”
“It’s just a real shame they had to end like that,” Burnham said.
“We’re still numb here,” said George Meinel, a good friend of the Somerses who lived near them outside Philadelphia.
Lewis Somers started a company in the 1960s that created components for the early dialysis machines. He eventually sold the company to Johnson & Johnson and took a seat on the corporation’s board, Meinel said. Later, he started another company that made more components for dialysis equipment.
Somers had lead poisoning when he was a child and was always worried about his kidneys, said John Rogers, chief development officer at William Penn Charter School, where Somers served on the board of directors.
“I would call him a tinkerer,” Rogers said. “He loved science. He loved working on all kinds of instruments. He was a genius,” and yet also “humility personified.”
Much of Lewis Somers’ life was spent in philanthropy. He helped support the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and served on the board of directors for the William Penn Charter School, a preparatory school founded by Quakers that he graduated from in 1944. Somers received the Seymour Preston Award in 2007 from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education for his work with the school, including helping it to exceed its $40 million capital campaign goal, and donating $3 million himself.
“He felt the school made such a difference in his life that he wanted to make sure it would continue to make a difference in the lives of others,” Rogers said. Somers had served on the charter school board since 1973, and in 1989 led the board. He was still a board member emeritus and had never missed a meeting.
“I had lunch with him three weeks ago at his house in Maine and we were talking about our new strategic plan, and he couldn’t wait for the next board meeting,” Rogers said. “He actually funded the last strategic plan for the school, a $1 million gift that was meant to get our school to be the best school it could be.”
Memorial arrangements for the couple were not available at press time.
Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: