Sonia’s death from heater prompts urgent inquest

On the cold July morning that she died last year, Sonia Sofianopoulos and her partner, Haralambos Sioros, agreed on the phone that he would come over for coffee. But when he arrived later that morning she didn’t answer the door of her Greensborough unit, even though her car was there.

Mr Sirios dialled her mobile phone and heard it ringing from inside the unit, but he guessed she must have gone out with her sister and left her phone and car behind, so he left. At age 62, Ms Sofianopoulos was in good health and led an active life. But by the next night, her family was deeply worried.

So her daughter Stella and Stella’s husband Jose let themselves into the unit at 10pm. Once inside they were hit by an intense heat and air that was hard to breathe. Ms Sofianopoulos was lying naked and deceased, face down on a towel on the floor between the bathroom and the bedroom.

The unit’s old Vulcan gas heater was running on high and a pot of burnt chickpeas was sitting on a low heat on the gas stove. Ms Sofianopoulos, who was born in Greece in 1954 and emigrated to Australia in 1973, died from carbon monoxide toxicity inside her McDowell Street unit on July 22, 2017.

On Tuesday, it was ruled that her death will be the subject of an urgent coronial inquest, to be heard over five days in May.

Coroner Jacqui Hawkins said at a directions hearing that the inquest carried a sense of urgency –  winter is coming and there is a risk that one or more of perhaps tens of thousands of similar open-flued gas heaters being used in Victoria could kill again.

At the block of 16 units where Ms Sofianopoulos died, 14 had the same Vulcan Heritage gas heater that poisoned Ms Sofianopoulos. All of them failed a test by the state regulator, Energy Safe Victoria, in November.

Residents in the block say they became petrified after they learnt they had the same type of heater. “It could have been us,” a resident named Julie said. “There could have been more deaths.”

At first, the residents did not know what had killed their neighbour. When her family told them  what had happened, their concern grew and they took steps to have the heaters removed.

Resident Eileen Kelly, who wears an oxygen mask, said she believed it had prevented her from breathing in the toxic fumes. “I was lucky,” she said. Ms Kelly said the heaters should be removed from all homes in the state. “Everyone should know about it,” she said.

The residents said Ms Sofianopoulos was “deeply missed” and they were still shocked by the death of a friend they described as kind and generous. “I couldn’t believe it, she was so full of life. She was still young,” neighbour Cathy Thornton said. “She was very caring, especially to her grandchildren. She was always doing something for someone.”

Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services is now working to determine how many of the dangerous open-flued heaters are still in use in Victoria’s public housing. The Vulcan heritage console is one of five different types of heater installed in the state’s stock of public housing.  There is also an unknown number installed in privately owned homes.

A spokesperson for the department said Ms Sofianopoulos’ death was a tragedy, and their thoughts and condolences were with her family. “When the department became aware of concerns regarding the circumstances of Ms Sofianopoulos’ death, all heaters at that location were immediately disconnected,” the spokesperson said.

Energy Safe Victoria is assisting the coroner with its investigation.

It is understood that open-flued heaters are of low risk inside ventilated or draughty homes, but carry a potential danger of causing carbon monoxide poisoning when installed inside more modern, energy-efficient buildings.

Paul Fearon, Energy Safe Victoria’s director, said the regulator was already working with Climate Technologies, the Vulcan unit’s manufacturer, and the department on a technical solution.

“We’re working as fast as we can so we can roll out a program to address this issue in coming weeks,” Mr Fearon said.

But Mr Fearon said the investigation might conclude with a recommendation to rapidly phase out this type of heater.

“I’m yet to be convinced that these heaters will remain viable technology into the future, given their conflict with energy-efficiency objectives,” Mr Fearon said.

Carbon monoxide is odourless, tasteless and colourless, and has been coined the silent or invisible killer.

A faulty gas heater also poisoned Mooroopna boys Chase and Tyler Robinson in their rented home in 2010.

Following their deaths, a coroner recommended inserting a clause into leases that obliges landlords to check or service gas appliances every two years. Energy Safe Victoria also recommends servicing gas heaters at least once every two years.