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Long-term exposure to CO leak from furnace killed 2 women

Choudhary Norman who lost two relatives West Rogers Park apartment building an apparent carbmonoxide leak Sunday. | John H. White~Sun-Times

Choudhary Norman, who lost two relatives in the West Rogers Park apartment building in an apparent carbon monoxide leak Sunday. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 1, 2013 7:29PM

Two West Rogers Park women who died Sunday were victims of long-term exposure to low doses of carbon monoxide — the odorless, colorless gas known as the “silent killer.”

The Cook County Medical Examiner’s office confirmed Monday night that the deaths of 77-year-old Rasheeda Akhter and 18-year-old Zanib Ahmed were caused by carbon-monoxide poisoning.

Assistant Deputy Fire Commissioner Mark Nielsen said it appeared a leak from the furnace at the home in the 2500 block of West North Shore claimed their lives and sent a 74-year-old woman to the hospital.

“This is regarded as a very tragic event,” Nielsen said. “And on behalf of the Chicago Fire Department, our sympathy goes out to this very tight-knit community.”

Nielsen said the family kept a combination smoke/carbon-monoxide detector near the furnace in the basement of the home that appeared to be in working order, but it did not go off. Nielsen said it hadn’t been tested as of Monday afternoon.

He said the family usually cracked open a window near the device. And the home did not have carbon-monoxide detectors on every floor within 14 feet of the bedrooms as required by city ordinance, fire officials said.

“The detector being close to a window, an open window, is a problem,” Nielsen said.

Shabbir Ahmed, Akhter’s son and Zanib Ahmed’s uncle, described the home as a two-story, four-unit apartment building occupied by 11 members of his family. He said the family has lived there 22 years, and it was owned by his father until he died recently.

One victim was found on each floor, Nielsen said, “pretty much directly above” the suspect furnace.

“We can’t believe what happened to our family,” Shabbir Ahmed said.

He said his sister-in-law woke up feeling sick around 3 a.m. Sunday, waking up other family members and possibly saving some lives.

“Everybody woke up and they moved around,” he said, “so I guess that probably gave them a little chance not to inhale a lot of the carbon monoxide.”

But Shabbir Ahmed said his younger brother later tried to wake Akhter and then called an ambulance.

Fire officials said they were called to the house at 10:39 a.m. Sunday and found Akhter suffering from cardiac arrest. When they got there they realized Zanib Ahmed was suffering a seizure and called for a second ambulance.

Both women were taken to Swedish Covenant Hospital.

Fire crews checked for carbon monoxide during that first visit to the house but found “very little, insignificant” amounts of the gas. They were called back to the building around 3:30 p.m. and were told a 74-year-old woman was unconscious. She was taken to St. Francis Hospital in Evanston in critical condition.

This time, Nielsen said, carbon-monoxide readings were high enough to call Peoples Gas. Fire officials said the gas company found more significant readings in the basement around the furnace, noticed a problem with the ventilation system and shut it down.

“It looks like it needed attention,” Nielsen said of the furnace.

A Peoples Gas spokeswoman would confirm only that it was helping fire officials in their investigation. The family also took five or six children to St. Francis, fire officials said.

Carbon-monoxide detectors should be kept clear of dust and debris, and batteries should be checked or replaced each spring and fall, according to the home-safety company First Alert. A spokesman said the company was aware of 14 non-fatal carbon monoxide poisonings in Chicago in 2012, and 20 in 2011. He also said two people died from exposure to the gas in 2011 and three people died in 2010.

Shabbir Ahmed said his niece was “extremely smart” and was considering medical school at Loyola or Northwestern University. He said his mother moved with her family from Pakistan to Chicago 30 years ago.

“Zanib was the second or third best student in Illinois on the SAT test,” said a relative who asked not to be named Monday night as mourners stopped by the family’s home in West Rogers Park. “She was nearing graduation at St. Scholastica High School. She was an honor student.”

Rasheeda Akhter was a high school history teacher in Pakistan before coming to the United States, where she worked minimum wage sewing jobs.

“She was a mentor and Zanib and her were inseparable,” the relative said. She was known as “Dadi,” which is Urdu for grandmother.

Nada Gomaa was Zanib’s grade-school teacher at MCC Full-Time School in Morton Grove, and taught her little sister, Amna, last year in fifth grade.

“Zanib was like her mother’s right hand. She’d come to parent-teacher conferences because her mother was constantly busy caring for her son who had autism,” Gomaa said. “She’d say, ‘Let me know if Amna is up to no good.’ ”

“Amna was constantly saying how she looked up to her big sister more than anyone,” Gomaa said.

The relative said Zanib wanted to go to medical school so she could help her mother care for her autistic brother, Zain, who is 12.

“They were two beautiful people,” the relative said.

Funerals for Rasheeda Akhter and Zanib Ahmed were scheduled for Tuesday.

Contributing: Mitch Dudek

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