mother shares warning carbon monoxide poisoning
Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
December 22, 2023 ·  5 min read

Mom shares warning after son, 9, dies of carbon monoxide poisoning on lake trip

It was a regular day at the lake for the Free family. Cassandra Free, her husband, their three sons, and a family friend spent the entire day motoring around Lake Eufaula, the largest lake in Eastern Oklahoma. They were tubing, wake surfing, and just generally enjoying the beautiful June weather – that is, until carbon monoxide poisoning struck.

Sadly, the fun family activities ended in tragedy. Free’s youngest son, nine-year-old Andrew Brady, had been sitting at the rear of the boat for most of the day. Just as they were docking the boat to go home, Little Andy fell unconscious into the water. 

The boy’s father managed to get him out of the water, but he never took another breath. Andrew Brady died. The culprit? Carbon monoxide poisoning [1].

What is Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas. It is a byproduct of burning gasoline, wood, propane, charcoal, or other fuel. 

When it accumulates, carbon monoxide can be very dangerous. Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when the gas builds up in your bloodstream. When you breathe too much of it in, your body replaces the oxygen in your red blood cells with carbon monoxide. This can lead to serious tissue damage or death [2].

Fuel-burning appliances and engines produce carbon monoxide. Usually, the amount they produce is not dangerous, but if they’re in a closed or partially closed space, CO levels in the air can build up to toxic amounts.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include:

  • Dull headache
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Blurred vision
  • Loss of consciousness [2]

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning on Boats

Boats that are powered by gasoline produce carbon monoxide. In many cases, these boats have generators that vent near the rear of the vessel. This can pose a threat to people in that area of the boat.

CO can build up even in the open air if the boat is travelling at low speeds or idling in the water for longer periods of time [3].

Little Andy was sitting at the rear of the boat for most of the day. Without realizing it, he was breathing in carbon monoxide. His parents, both of whom had more than twenty years of boating experience each, had no idea this could happen.

Because Lake Eufaula was so large, it had a substantial no-wake zone. This is the area in a lake where boaters must drive at low speeds.

“We had no idea it was so dangerous. Prior to that we had been out doing our normal stuff, tubing, wakesurfing,” said Free [1].

All Children Affected

All three of the kids had been complaining that they were tired and nauseous. The parents didn’t think it was unusual for their nine, thirteen, and fifteen-year-old sons to be somewhat cranky after a full day in the sun, so they didn’t think much of it.

At the end of the day, Andy crawled to the back of the boat and curled up into a ball. When his dad, Brett, tried to get him up, he fell off the boat and into the water. At first, the family couldn’t understand why. Someone suggested that they have the other boys tested for CO poisoning.

Andy was tested as well, and the results said he had 72 carboxyhemoglobin. That means that 72 percent of his blood could not carry oxygen to his brain, causing his brain to die.

“[Brett and two other men] did CPR forever, it seemed, before emergency services came,” said Free. “The doctors said there is zero brain activity. Even if they got a single breath, there would have been no quality of life.” [1]

How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning on Boats

The problem is that carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms are similar to that of seasickness or alcohol intoxication. The US Coast Guard says that CO poisoning on boats is entirely preventable. They make the following statement on their website:

“Every boater should be aware of the risks associated with carbon monoxide – what it is; where it may accumulate; and the symptoms of CO poisoning. To protect yourself, your passengers, and those around you, learn all you can about CO.” [4]

In a boating situation, CO can accumulate in the following areas:

  • Inadequately vented canvas enclosures
  • Exhaust gas trapped in enclosed spaces
  • Blocked exhaust outlets
  • Another boat’s exhaust (such as the boat docked next to you)
  • “Station wagon effect” or backdrafting
  • At slow speeds, idling, or stopped. CO can remain in or around your boat at dangerous levels even after the engine is turned off [5].

Emergency physician Dr. Ryan Stanton says that children are the most susceptible, and the back of the boat is the highest-risk area, since that is the location of the exhaust.

“Carbon monoxide emergencies can be avoided but detecting symptoms can be challenging,” he said. “It’s very important to know the symptoms, and wherever you can, have detectors. Boat, vehicle or home owners should take steps to ensure clean air circulation.” [1]

Boaters should also educate all their passengers on the signs and symptoms of CO poisoning, and take care that no one is swimming or playing near where a boat vents its exhaust.

Telling Andy’s Story to Help Others

Free says that life has been a nightmare since Andy died. Despite the fact that she, her husband, and their friend were all experienced boaters, they had never heard of carbon monoxide poisoning on a boat.

“None of us had ever heard of it. None of us had considered it,” she said. “We were stunned.” [1]

She is now telling her painful story in hopes that it will prevent the same tragedy from happening to another family.

“Andy was supposed to grow up and save the world,” she said. “He still can. He can never grow up, but he can still save the world. His name will be forever tied to the lives he saved. That has become my mission. To make sure that no mom stands in my shoes.” [1]