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Couple's death a 'tragic accident'

Loss of McKeesport pair elicits sadness and anger

Thursday, October 09, 2003

By Johnna A. Pro, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

To hear the elderly residents of McKeesport's Steel View Manor tell it, McKeesport Housing Authority is either prompt and responsive addressing resident concerns or cavalier and uncaring.

Such conflicting opinions emerged yesterday at the 88-unit high-rise where on Tuesday James and Edna Saylor were found dead. He was 79; she was 74.

The Allegheny County coroner's office ruled that the couple died of carbon monoxide poisoning and that their deaths were accidental.

Because there was no heat in the building while contractors replaced the boiler system, the Saylors apparently were trying to keep warm using heat from their gas oven. They were overcome with fumes.

"It took two people to die," said Laurene Anderson, 65, who has lived there for four years. "Every time we complained, they said, 'We're getting to it. We're getting to it.' "

Safety tips for the heating season

Malfunctioning or incorrectly vented furnaces, hot water heaters, space heaters, fireplaces, cooking stoves and other fuel-burning equipment are common sources of carbon monoxide. The Allegheny County Health Department offers the following tips to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning:

Don't use a charcoal grill or a cooking stove to warm a house.

Don't leave a car, van or truck running in an attached garage.

Furnace and fireplaces should be cleaned and inspected before each heating season.

Carbon monoxide home alarms can help, but are not foolproof and are not a substitute for regular furnace maintenance.

People with health problems such as heart or lung diseases, the elderly, infants, children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to carbon monoxide.

Poisoning symptoms may include any of the following: headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, rapid heartbeat, loss of hearing, blurry vision, vomiting, disorientation, seizures, loss of consciousness, coma, respiratory failure and cardiac arrest.

Anyone experiencing these symptoms should leave the premises and immediately call 911.

The Carbon Monoxide Awareness Coalition offers a free brochure entitled, "What You Should Know To Protect Your Family From Carbon Monoxide." The brochure is available through the health department by calling 412-687-ACHD (2243) or visiting its web site at


"I've been here 19 years and I've loved every minute of it," said Violet Fundrella, 82. "That furnace, that couldn't be helped. And they were fixing it. It takes time. It wasn't that cold."

A quick survey of residents yesterday showed similar divergent opinions, but a number of people, including three officials of the tenants council, defended the authority.

Even supporters of the authority acknowledged that in recent weeks, and despite warnings, some residents were lighting their burners, ovens or both in an effort to stay warm.

The Saylors' bodies were discovered by their son, James Jr., of Stanton Heights, who went to the apartment when his parents failed to return a call he made to them on Monday.

"My sense at this point is that it was a tragic accident," the younger Saylor said.

Even so, he questioned whether it was appropriate for the heat to be off after Oct. 1, given the number of elderly and infirm living in the building.

Among those most distressed was John H. Kooser, the executive director of the McKeesport Housing Authority for 31 years.

"These elderly people are like my family," Kooser said. "They give me Christmas cards, and when I'm down there all sorts of things. They invite me into their homes. Then to lose them for something stupid like this, well it just zings you. We have told families over and over not to do that."

Steel View Manor and Isbir Manor are the two high-rises for the elderly operated by the authority, which oversees 1,064 units in 60 buildings.

Both buildings have been without heat because the boilers were being replaced.

The $560,000 contract to replace the boilers was awarded in May to the contractor, Scalise Industries, which has until Oct. 20 to complete the work.

Contractors began the job in July, according to project foreman Chris Burns.

At Steel View Manor, the heat was turned on yesterday, a date prearranged two weeks ago to coincide with the completion of the installation of the pipes and boilers, Burns said.

Kooser said that as the authority reviews what happened, it will have to decide if waiting to allow the work to be completed until late October was appropriate. Most likely, no one expected it to get cold early, so the target date was not unreasonable, he said.

Kooser said that two weekends ago, during rainy and unseasonably cold weather, he had three or four complaints out of nearly 200 residents in both buildings.

Typically the heat is turned on in October, although there is no set date. Kooser makes the decision each year based on the weather.

"Two weeks ago, that's what I was worried about," Kooser said. "It was that raining, cold weekend. If the system had been going, I feel we would have turned the system on then, but I can only guess."

He said that the Saylors never complained to him, nor to anyone else, according to the authority's records.

The Saylors did not complain to family members either, according to their son.

"They hadn't complained to me, but that's the type of people they were," the younger Saylor said. "They were independent."

The Saylors had lived in the high-rise for two years and liked it because of its close proximity to the Bethlehem Baptist Church, where they were active members.

James Saylor, a retired steelworker, was a deacon, choir member and Sunday School teacher. Edna Saylor, a retired nurse, was part of the church's ministry that worked with female offenders at the Allegheny County Jail.

Both were longtime supporters and volunteers of the local food bank.

In addition to their son, the couple is survived by a daughter, Harriet Saylor, of Forrestville, Md., and one grandchild.

Arrangements are by the Thomas Waters Funeral Home in McKeesport.

Johnna Pro can be reached at or 412-263-1574.

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