Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Monday, March 17, 2014
Expert: Chemical suicides a scary, growing trend
Posted: Thursday, March 13, 2014
The smell of rotten eggs in the air was certainly unpleasant, but nothing alarming for Miriam Favano Dougherty when it roused her from bed around 3:30 a.m. Sunday.
She went into her bathroom, then the hallway, where the smell was stronger. That is when the Lower Southampton woman decided to go downstairs to ask her son Daniel if he smelled it, too.
Daniel, a college student, was home on spring break. He wasn’t in bed, but his cellphone was plugged in. Next she checked the powder room, which is when she saw the sign taped to the door.
Daniel Favano in the middle of his brothers
It listed chemical names and warned the reader not to enter.
“Three breaths will kill you,” the note read, she said.
Behind that barricaded door, her 22-year-old son was dead, a suicide that brought hazardous materials and emergency response crews to the Chalet Village apartment complex where the family lives. About 30 apartment residents had to be evacuated for several hours until the scene was rendered safe.
Only later did Favano Dougherty learn her son had mixed chemicals to create a cloud of poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas, a suicide method that some experts say is growing.
The chemical suicide is the second in Bucks County in four years. In 2010, a 33-year-old man killed himself using the same lethal combination to create hydrogen sulfide as he sat in a car parked in a Richland garage, according to press accounts.
That man also taped signs to the car’s windows warning of poisonous gas inside and urging readers to call hazmat units. Two police officers who responded to the call were exposed to the gas fumes for only seconds and did not require treatment, according to press accounts.
“These chemicals are very, very accessible,” said Bob Brzenchek, criminal justice lead and assistant professor for the legal studies program at Peirce College in Philadelphia, who has studied the trend. “The numbers speak for themselves.”
Between 2008 and June, 2011, at least 72 incidents of chemical suicides have been documented, Brzenchek said, citing a New York Times story. Often this method results in injuries to first responders and bystanders, he added.
As in Favano and the 2010 Richland case, often the person who commits suicide leaves a warning note behind, Brzenchek said.
No note warned emergency responders at the scene of an attempted suicide by chemicals in Kingston Township, Luzerne County, in 2011, when a man crashed into a tree while driving after mixing the deadly chemical combination in his car, Brzenchek said.
About four or five EMS units ended up quarantined at a hospital, and the entire hospital was eventually quarantined.
The public should take precautions if they come into contact with such a suicide, he added.
“Size up the situation and you have to use common sense,” Brzenchek said. “Do not open the door no matter where you are. If you come upon a scene and you smell something like bitter almonds or rotten eggs, that’s one of your first signs that there is something wrong.”
In Lower Southampton, the apartment complex owner has hired a contractor to handle removal of the remaining chemicals Daniel Favano used, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Debra Fries confirmed Thursday. The chemicals have been secured and they are being stored in a secure area at the complex, pending their removal, Fries said.
Despite her son’s final warning posted on the powder room door, Favano Dougherty tried to break down the door, throwing her body against it. But Daniel had barricaded it on the other side.
She then ran back upstairs and got her other son, husband and 2-year-old grandson out of the residence. They were all treated at a local hospital for fumes.
Chemical suicide is something Favano Dougherty had never heard of before Sunday, when a paramedic told her it’s a growing trend, she said. She has spent the days since her son’s death learning everything she can about this little-known suicide method.
“I want to prevent anyone else from doing this,” she said.
The family hasn’t been able to access his computer to see if there was any inkling he was planning suicide.
She was up with Daniel until 10 p.m. Saturday. His older brother — who turned 24 on Thursday — was up with him until midnight. His mother remembers them laughing. He had lunch plans for Monday.
“There really was no sign. No one depressive day. Nothing is on his (smart) phone; I’ve gone through every textbook, copy book. We’ve talked with his friends — nothing,” she said. “It’s a quick death; that is my only solace I have.”
Daniel was studying clinical psychology at Temple University and maintained a 3.6 grade point average, his mother said. He reached the rank of colonel in his high school’s Junior ROTC program, she said.
Since Sunday, Favano Dougherty has been wearing Daniel’s Temple sweatshirt so she can be closer to him.
Her son was quirky; a huge fan of the British science fiction series “Dr. Who,” he preferred classical music and Josh Groban. Daniel was born on Halloween, the 12th of 13 babies born at the hospital that day, his mom said.
“He was my ‘Boo-Boo,’” she said. “He’d go out and go up to the doors and say, ‘Trick or treat — it’s my birthday,’ and he’d get double the candy.”
Daniel loved long walks and he logged five miles every day. He taught himself to read music. He was also self-taught on the violin, flute and ocarina, also called a vessel flute.
“And he could play well,” Favano Dougherty added.
The family is planning to hold Daniel’s funeral a week from Saturday. He will be cremated because his body is too toxic to bury, Favano Dougherty said. She can’t touch his body because of the chemicals, she said.
“I can’t say he was the light of my life — all my sons all are — but every day he made me laugh,” she added. “Not one person has told me he was depressed at all. Everyone is asking me why.”