BURLINGAME -- Corporate pilot Robert McNamara, 58, was rushed to the hospital on a November night after being found inexplicably unconscious in his Embassy Suites hotel room.
It would be several hours before doctors and authorities wove a tangle of confusing clues into a diagnosis: severe carbon monoxide poisoning.
But no alarms were sounding as hundreds of guests slept that night, because none were installed, according to a fire department report. A state law requiring carbon monoxide alarms in hotels and motels doesn't go into effect until 2016.
McNamara and his wife, both of Bakersfield, have filed a lawsuit accusing the hotelier of negligence.
McNamara survived the poisoning, but he was left with severe brain injuries and is undergoing rehabilitation, said his attorney Rich Schoenberger, who filed the suit Jan. 11 in San Mateo County Superior Court. He is seeking an award of an unspecified amount.
"Were it not for his own personal strength and the support of his family he wouldn't be here," said Schoenberger.
Hilton Hotels, which own the Embassy brand, didn't respond to repeated requests for comment.
McNamara was at the Embassy Suites hotel Nov. 7 as part of his work for Occidental Petroleum Corporation, an oil and gas exploration firm. But after he didn't turn up for a meeting, colleagues went looking for him, culminating in a hotel employee opening the door to his room, said Central County Fire Chief Don Dornell. McNamara was taken by ambulance to Mills-Peninsula Hospital around 6:30 p.m., where doctors struggled to figure out what was wrong.
Early on, emergency medicine Doctor Karin Molander, who couldn't speak specifically due to medical privacy laws, suspected carbon monoxide poisoning. However, contradictory test results muddied that belief. Despite the uncertainty, McNamara was receiving treatment.
"I felt like I was on an episode of 'House,' " Molander said, referring to the TV show where a doctor solves obscure medical mysteries.
Later in the evening the same medic who dropped off McNamara returned to Mills-Peninsula with a patient from a call unrelated to the hotel. He chatted with Molander about McNamara, the mystery patient, and after discussing worries the culprit was carbon monoxide, he reported his concerns to fire dispatchers about 12:10 a.m.
Fire crews using carbon monoxide detecting equipment picked up 40 parts per million when they got off the elevator on the hotel's second floor, according to a fire department report. The Occupational Safety Hazard Administration limit for a workplace is 50 ppm.
By the time the crew made their way into McNamara's room, no. 209, the detector had hit 990 ppm. A level of 1,000 ppm would cause an average adult to lose consciousness in an hour, according to standards from the National Fire Protection Association. Death could come in a matter of hours.
"We rapidly exited the room and closed the door behind us," the firefighters wrote in their report. The crews then checked the corridors on all nine floors of the building and found carbon monoxide on all of them, with levels ranging from 20-90 ppm.
Workers at the front desk began calling rooms. Of five called, only one responded. Concerned for the safety of the guests, authorities pulled the fire alarm and evacuated hundreds of people.
Only a couple people had symptoms of mild poisoning. None were hospitalized. A subsequent investigation revealed the carbon monoxide was spewing from a malfunctioning boiler.
A state law requiring carbon monoxide detectors in most multiunit dwellings in California went into effect Jan. 1. It was also supposed to apply to hotels and motels, but California Hotel & Lodging Association obtained a three-year extension.
The group's director said Thursday it sought the delay to ensure the alarms would not have to be installed a second time because of building code changes expected in 2014.
"We're definitely not looking at eliminating the law," said association President and CEO Lynn Mohrfeld. "The safety of the guests is paramount."
The former state lawmaker, now a congressman, who authored the legislation making carbon monoxide detectors mandatory said it's "unconscionable" that a hotel would not have them.
"With a minimum amount of money you can save lives," said Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach.
Contact Joshua Melvin at 650-348-4335. Follow him at Twitter.com/melvinreport.