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The 216-room Doubletree in Key West, Florida Closed Indefinitely;
Multiple Agencies Investigating Death of Hotel Guest

By Cammy Clark and Evan S. Benn, The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Dec. 29, 2006 - KEY WEST -- As the fire alarm screamed in the fourth-floor hallway, the general manager of the Doubletree Grand Key Resort rushed into the room occupied by a father and son.

There he found Richard and Thomas Lueders unconscious. Hotel manager Steve Robbins tried giving one of the men CPR, but also fell ill. The three men were rushed to the hospital. Investigators suspect poisonous fumes, perhaps coming from the hotel's fourth-floor boiler room, triggered the trauma.

While Richard Lueders and Robbins are recovering from the Wednesday afternoon incident, Lueders' son Thomas Lueders, 26, never woke up. His death has sparked a massive, multiagency investigation.

The 216-room Doubletree, Key West's second-largest hotel, was shut down Wednesday and remains closed indefinitely. The city's emergency operations center, which typically sees action only during major storms, was activated. A slew of inspectors has been brought in to check everything from fire alarms to liquid propane tanks to boilers.

"We are looking very, very carefully at the fourth-floor boiler. It is a suspect," Key West City Manager Julio Avael said late Thursday.

GUESTS RELOCATED

Guests were immediately evacuated and eventually relocated to hotels around South Florida, which was not easy during a holiday week.

"It's a very busy time here, going into New Year's Eve," said Harold Wheeler, director of the Monroe County Tourism Development Council. "A lot of our major lodging properties have full occupancy. But I understand the [Doubletree] resort did everything they could do find rooms for their guests."

It could be several days before the inspections are complete and the hotel is deemed safe for occupancy, Key West Fire Marshal Craig Marston said.

It was the second time this month guests staying on the Doubletree's fourth floor had to be rushed to hospitals. On Dec. 21, three guests were treated for what investigators then called food poisoning.

NO TRACE IN AIR

There was no inspection of the hotel after that incident, but now authorities are rethinking their diagnosis. "We just don't know what is wrong," hotel spokeswoman Karen Thurman said Thursday. "Our air-quality monitors aren't showing anything, and the local fire department hasn't been able to trace anything."

Some guests reported smelling chemical fumes, citing smoke and paint.

Earlier in the day, officials speculated that carbon monoxide -- which is an odorless gas -- may have been the culprit.

"Someone told me they smelled something, but I didn't smell anything, and I'm very sensitive," said Faye Klein, 70, the hotel's executive housekeeper.

There is no state law requiring hotels to monitor carbon monoxide levels, according to Kristen Ploska, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Klein confirmed the hotel does not have carbon monoxide alarms.

Klein and maintenance worker Dulce Maria also were taken to hospitals to be checked out; Klein said she has high blood pressure that spiked, and Maria had recently given birth.

"We're all right, thank God," Klein said. "But I feel so sorry for the death of the boy."

Richard and Thomas Lueders had come to Key West for some father-son holiday bonding, relatives said.

The elder Lueders, 53, is a human resources director at DTE Energy in Detroit. After being initially examined at the Stock Island Medical Center, he was flown to Southwest Florida Regional Medical Center in Fort Myers, which has a hyperbaric chamber to treat fume victims. After being discharged Thursday afternoon, he returned to Key West to make arrangements for his son.

A 2003 Boston College graduate, Thomas had worked for a Washington lobbying firm. He was an English major in college and hoped to one day make a living through his writing.

"Tom was the epitome of Midwestern values in everything he did," said Brendan Covington, Lueders' friend from college and roommate in Washington. "Every person who knew him would probably say they're his best friend. He was very close to all his friends."

Covington said his friend was diabetic and required insulin shots. But it didn't keep him from playing in a local soccer league.

"He was a huge soccer fan," Covington said. "And he's pretty damn good at it, too."

Covington also was in Key West on Thursday for a family vacation.

"I called Tom's phone, but he didn't pick up," Covington said. "This really made everything sour for me in Key West. I don't know if I can ever come back here."

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Copyright (c) 2006, The Miami Herald

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