Carbon monoxide devastates Rice Lake family

DULUTH, Minn. -- Carbon monoxide left no trace Thursday of the tragedy it brought the night before for a Rice Lake Township family, leaving two people dead and two others hospitalized in critical condition.

DULUTH, Minn. - Carbon monoxide left no trace Thursday of the tragedy it brought the night before for a Rice Lake Township family, leaving two people dead and two others hospitalized in critical condition.

The colorless, odorless, silent killer that authorities believe spewed from a small, gas-powered generator crept into a travel trailer where Michael Mechley was living with his three children.

The toxic gas overcame and killed Mechley, 39, and his youngest daughter, Charlene, 11, who were pronounced dead at the scene at about 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Karley N. Mechley, 15, and Noah J. Mechley, 14, were taken to Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth and later transferred to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis for treatment in a hyperbaric chamber.

Hyperbaric oxygen is a specialized medical treatment in which the patient breathes 100 percent oxygen while inside a chamber at increased atmospheric pressure. Hennepin County Medical Center is one of just a few hospitals nationally providing full-time hyperbaric care for emergency patients.


Michael Mechley was the youngest of seven siblings, his brother, Rick Cozzi said.

“He was a really good father. He’d give the shirt off his back to anybody,” he said. “He was the most helpful, and like a mom to the kids. No guys were like him.”

Of his niece, Charlene, Cozzi said she was “smarter than a whip, you know? She was fast and strong, like a little monkey … A beautiful, wonderful girl.”

Autopsies conducted Thursday on Michael Mechley and Charlene Mechley by the St. Louis County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed carbon monoxide poisoning, said Lt. Jason Lukovsky of the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office.

“The preliminary results are that the cause of death for both victims is fatal levels of carbon monoxide,’’ Lukovsky said. “There was a note that the levels were so high that it’s sort of amazing that anyone survived in there.”

Authorities said one of the teenagers living at the trailer called their grandfather to report there was a problem. The grandfather, Larry Cozzi, who lives just through the woods, arrived quickly, got the teens out of the trailer and called 911.

The Rice Lake Volunteer Fire Department found high levels of carbon monoxide in the trailer, which the family was living in, according to Lukovsky. He said the carbon monoxide apparently came from a small, gas-powered generator used to provide electricity for the camper. The generator was not running when emergency crews arrived.

The generator “was outside, under the overhang of the camper with the exhaust pointing underneath the camper,’’ Lukovsky said. The area under the overhang was surrounded by a tarp, which may have helped hold the gas near the trailer.


Mark Niemi, Rice Lake Township assistant fire chief, said crews at the scene didn’t hear or see a carbon monoxide detector but also didn’t investigate if one may have been in the trailer.

On Thursday there was no sign that anything bad had happened at the so-called fifth-wheel trailer tucked onto a small wooded lot in a swampy area in  Rice Lake Township, just a few hundred yards north of the Duluth city limits.

The family’s minivan still sat outside the camper, along with children’s sleds and propane tanks. Tarps had been placed on top of the trailer, and material wrapped around its base, in an effort to keep out the snow and below zero cold of the frigid winter.

Charlene Mechley had been a student at Duluth’s Homecroft Elementary School, just a block away from the trailer, while Karley Mechley attends Duluth East High School and Noah Mechley Ordean East Middle School.

School district officials said crisis response teams - including counselors, school social workers and psychologists - are working at the schools involved to provide grief support for students and staff.

“We were deeply saddened to learn early this morning of an incident which resulted in the death of Charlene Mechley, a student in our school system, and rendered Noah and Karley Mechley, also our students, seriously ill,’’ said Bill Gronseth, district superintendent, in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with these children, their family and friends today.”

The children’s mother divorced from their father in 2007 and lives in Wisconsin.

Trista Turnbull of Duluth described Mike Mechley as a great friend who would do anything to help people.


“I can tell you that he would have walked the earth for those kids and loved them with all he had,’’ she said. “He was an amazing friend who was always smiling and was always willing to help anyone who was in need.”

Officials Thursday urged Northlanders to check that their carbon monoxide detectors are working, noting Minnesota state law requires a detector within 10 feet of every bedroom. Local fire departments have cited the detectors for saving many lives.

National health officials say generators are a common source for carbon monoxide, as are other gas burning devices which either malfunction or are not vented properly - everything from household furnaces and water heaters to portable heaters used in ice fishing shelters and hunting shacks. Using barbecue grills in the house or garage and using a gas stove or oven for heat, are also common sources of carbon monoxide buildup in a home.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says carbon monoxide poisoning accounts for some 15,000 emergency room visits and 430 deaths each year.

According to the CDC, victims often overlook the symptoms - including headache, nausea, dizziness and confusion - or mistake the cause as some other ailment. Undetected exposure, often when victims fall asleep or are already asleep, can be fatal.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, the toxic gas prevents the body from absorbing the oxygen it needs to survive.

Males are three times more likely than females to be victims and males older than age 65 are the most likely to die. Men are more likely to be around gas-powered devices, a CDC report notes, and older people often mistake the symptoms for the flu or other ailments.

The CDC notes that even more people may be dying of carbon monoxide deaths each year but the cases go unreported because coroners or other investigators may not suspect or notice the cause of death.


Forum News Service writer Jana Hollingsworth contributed to this report.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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