Jeffrey's Foundation

The Jeffrey Lee Williams Foundation, a Rock Hill-based nonprofit, has donated carbon monoxide detectors such as this Protégé ZM model, as part of an effort to curb deaths from the toxic gas statewide. The Jeffrey Lee Williams Foundation/Provided

It began with an upset stomach.

Jeannie Williams was in the bathroom in a Best Western hotel in Boone, N.C., where she and her 11-year-old son, Jeffrey, had checked in for the night. Jeffrey had finished showering and was already in bed. It was Jeannie's turn to get ready for the night. It was supposed to be a short, overnight trip, and the two weren't far from their home in Rock Hill.

But something had gone terribly wrong. 

The mother and her son didn't know that carbon monoxide — a deadly, odorless, colorless, tasteless gas — was seeping into their room from a pool water heater one floor below.

Jeannie had closed the bathroom door because she thought she was going to be sick. She started passing out and crawled from the toilet onto the floor. She wanted to call 911 but her phone was plugged into an outlet by her bed. 

She called out to Jeffrey.

"I reached for the door," Williams said. "That's the last thing I remember."

It was June 7, 2013.

Williams was found the next day after she didn't show up to pick up her daughter from camp. She had been unconscious for 14 hours. Jeffrey was in his bed. He had already died. 

According to statistics provided by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, most carbon monoxide deaths in South Carolina happen as a result of structure fires.

But there also are non-fire-related deaths from the gas each year, including 55 between 2011 and 2016, according to DHEC data. Statistics for this year won't be available until 2018, an agency spokesman said. 

Those deaths should have been preventable, Williams said. 

"The main thing is to have a carbon monoxide alarm," she said. "The sources can be from appliances to a car in an enclosed garage; clogged fireplaces, a clogged vent. Symptoms are similar to the flu."

After her son's death, Williams founded The Jeffrey Lee Williams Foundation — a nonprofit aimed at spreading awareness of carbon monoxide safety and preventing deaths by donating alarms that detect the gas. 

A detector can be purchased for around $20 from any hardware or home improvement store, Williams said. Anyone who travels should carry one.

"You can't assume alarms are there and maintained," she said. 

The nonprofit has made presentations at community events and has donated thousands of carbon monoxide alarms to agencies around the Palmetto State.

"We share our story wherever we can," Williams said. "The fire safety folks have been supportive."

Still, Williams has her sights set on doing more.

"We want to do more things as a family that focus on how Jeffrey lived versus how he died," she said. "He just had a big heart for other people." 

With that in mind, Williams will be partnering on Nov. 28 with the Chick-fil-A at 2415 Cherry Road in Rock Hill for National Giving Tuesday, and will hold Jeffrey's Brick Contest, a Lego building competition to raise money for the nonprofit's donation and education efforts. 

To learn more about carbon monoxide safety or to support The Jeffrey Lee Williams Foundation, visit www.jeffreysfoundation.org

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Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.

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