Steubenville man says couple’s death spurred him to get monoxide detector — just in time

Calvin Wicker of Steubenville sat at his dining room table and talked about surviving a carbon monoxide leak in his basement. Wicker, a retired steelworker, urged everyone to invest in smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. — Dave Gossett

STEUBENVILLE — Calvin Wicker’s friends had been urging the Logan Street resident to get a carbon monoxide monitor for several years.

But he always put it off, until he heard the news of the carbon monoxide deaths of James “Chico” and Carolyn Swearengen in their Lincoln Avenue home earlier this month.

The Jefferson County Coroner’s office ruled the deaths a result of carbon monoxide poisoning.

“I went out to Lowe’s and bought a carbon monoxide detector I put on the wall by the basement steps and a combination carbon monoxide and smoke detector upstairs. One day after I installed the monitor it went off, so I called the city fire department and they came right over,” said Wicker.

“We walked into the house with our detectors and they immediately started going off. I told Mr. Wicker he was the luckiest man alive because the carbon monoxide was slowly building up in his basement and poisoning him,” related fire department Capt. Chris Blackburn.

“He was lucky he had the peace of mind to go buy a monitor and to put one up by his kitchen. And when it went off he called us immediately. A little paranoia saved his life. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a tragedy to prevent a tragedy. If he didn’t install that monitor and hadn’t reacted properly when it went off he would have probably died,” said Blackburn.

“We went down in the basement to check out his hot water heat and boiler and the exhaust pipe from the hot water heater was literally rusted away and wasn’t connected to the chimney. It was just a matter of time,” explained Blackburn.

“I was on the investigation team at the Swearengen home and it was sad because I played softball with Chico. They probably both thought they had the flu because carbon monoxide poisoning has similar symptoms,” Blackburn said.

Wicker said he had been having frequent headaches in recent weeks and had gone to the Trinity Medical Center West emergency room to complain about his migraine headaches.

“This was my mom’s house from the early 1960s, and now it is mine. I go down in the basement several times a day to bounce on a trampoline for exercise and I go to the sauna at the Millsop Community Center in Weirton. That may have helped me with oxygen. And someone was watching over me. I believe I am here for a reason,” Wicker continued.

Fire Chief Carlo Capaldi recommended all residents should get a carbon monoxide detector and a smoke detector.

“You can get one carbon monoxide detector and place it in the main living area or outside of your bedrooms. People usually have multiple smoke detectors. Don’t put the detector in the basement because it can go off with a slight leak. I recommend getting an electric powered detector with a battery backup so you don’t have to worry about the battery going dead. You can get a detector at any hardware store,” said Capaldi.

“If the detector goes off, call the fire department and leave the house. Don’t open windows or doors because that will alter the carbon monoxide readings. If there is a problem we will ventilate the house after we determine the problem. If you have an attached garage or a garage under one of the rooms put in a detector in case you leave your vehicle running,” advised Capaldi.

“Carbon monoxide is dangerous because you can’t see it or smell it. And it can be fatal,” remarked Capaldi.

“The firefighters told me to call someone immediately to fix the vent pipe, and Donvernon came and they found bricks had fallen into the chimney. So the vent pipe was rusted through and the chimney was blocked. Donvernon cleaned out the bricks and fixed the pipe,” stated the retired steelworker.

“My advice to others is to be thankful and be kind to others. Know that we have Earth angels, and go to the store and get a carbon monoxide detector and a smoke detector for your home. I believe an Earth angel was watching over me and that is why I am still alive today,” said Wicker.

(Gossett can be contacted at