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​What a grieving mom wants you to know about carbon monoxide

March 1, 2018

Photo of a woman looking at a headstone at a cemetery.

On a sunny day in 1995, 4-year-old Nicholas Burt excitedly tells the camera how he’s going to help his dad: “I’m gonna climb up the ladder with him and then I’m gonna climb one of his ropes!” His brother, 16-month old Zachary, toddles across the grass toward the camera, giggling. One wonders, watching these two little boys, if they’ll always be this happy. What will they be when they grow up? Will they have families of their own? Will they stay in Minnesota, or move away?

Because of a faulty furnace and a resulting carbon monoxide leak, the only one of those questions we can answer is the last. Nicholas and Zachary have stayed in Minnesota – under a beautiful tombstone in a lovely cemetery in Rochester.

Their mother, Cheryl, gazes at the grave of her two youngest sons as she describes the horror of Jan. 5, 1996 — the night they died. The family, including the boys’ dad Todd and their older brother Ryan, had been sick for weeks. Cheryl took them to the doctor so often that she was labeled a “hypochondriac mom.” No one realized that she and her family were being slowly poisoned by the colorless, odorless gas their furnace was leaking that cold winter.

So many painful images from that night collide as Cheryl describes them: her desire for the boys just to go to sleep because her head hurt so badly she could barely talk; baby Zachary’s labored breathing when she went to check on him; discovering Nicholas’ cold, lifeless body, lying down beside it, and wishing for death herself. But the memory that pains Cheryl from the most is from a few days before, when she was at the store. She was trying to decide between a carbon monoxide alarm and a toy for one of the boys.

She chose the toy.

Cheryl has spent much of the 23 years since her sons’ death educating others about the importance of carbon monoxide alarms. And although nothing she does can bring Nicholas and Zachary back, she believes their loss helps her get the message out: “It’s because they died that people listen.”

Nicholas will never climb ladders with his dad. Zachary will never run across the grass again. But their mom can work to make sure no one else has to feel her pain. “I do not ever want anyone – ever – to have to go through what I went through. I chose a toy over a lifesaving device.”

So she implores people to make buying a carbon monoxide alarm a top priority. “Do not put it off one more day. You have to have these devices. Had I bought that alarm, I would have my kids.”

To follow Cheryl’s advice, you can learn more about the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning – headache, confusion, dizziness and nausea, to name a few – and buy a carbon monoxide alarm at any home improvement store.