The Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner determined that Abdelouahab Hattab died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
But he really died of something I call illegal apartmenting.
It’s an insidious industry in Stamford.
Hattab, who would have turned 47 on Jan. 1, was found naked, curled in a fetal position, on the floor of his shower with the water running. From what I can piece together from police reports, Hattab lay there at least 10 hours, water raining on him the whole time.
His body was discovered late on the afternoon of May 2, after his sister in Morocco tried to reach him for hours to celebrate the end of Ramadan, a Muslim holy month of fasting and introspection. The sister, Weam Loukili, became worried because she called her big brother frequently and he always answered.
Loukili contacted her friend in Morocco who also had a brother, Wadii Bahajji, living in Stamford. They asked Bahajji to go to Hattab’s apartment, one of two in the basement of a single-family home at 31 Hillcrest Ave.
According to police reports, the door to the basement had no lock, and Bahajji walked in. Bahajji could see the light on in the bathroom and heard the shower running. But Hattab did not respond when Bahajji called his name, and the bathroom door was locked. So Bahajji called police.
Officer Javier Campos-Canales arrived and yanked the bathroom door open. The shower rod and curtain were on the floor. Hattab, only 5 feet, 6 inches tall and 120 pounds, was lying with his face pressed to the tile near the drain, water swirling into it. There was blood in the shower – Hattab’s nose broke in the fall – and his skin was taking on the bluish-purple discoloration that comes with death.
Police found no evidence of foul play. Their clue about the cause of Hattab’s death came the following morning in a call from the medical examiner. She reported that preliminary results of Hattab’s autopsy showed that his carboxyhemoglobin saturation rate – a measure of the amount of carbon monoxide in the blood – was 64 percent. Anything beyond 40 percent is fatal.
Stamford police raced back to 31 Hillcrest Ave. In the century-old colonial on the edge of downtown – smallish at just over 1,700 square feet – they found that 12 tenants, including children, were living on the first and second floors. Beyond that, a man was sharing the basement with Hattab.
A 16-year-old girl on the first floor told police that, the previous day – the day Hattab died – she fainted. An 11-year-old boy said he felt ill. They were rushed to Stamford Hospital; other tenants were evacuated.
The fire department and an Eversource meter technician arrived to take carbon monoxide readings. Police called city building and health inspectors.
They found that the home’s boiler and hot water heater were in the bathroom where Hattab collapsed. The water heater outlet pipe was not vented to the exterior. The inspection report states that the pipe “appears to just emit carbon monoxide into the bathroom.”
The fire marshal turned on the hot water in the bathroom to get the heater running. After it ran for 45 seconds, the meter recorded 55 parts per million. Danger begins at 36 parts per million.
In the other basement apartment inspectors found the exposed electrical panel for the house positioned beside wire shelving. It could easily have caused a fire or electrocution, inspectors wrote.
The door at the top of the basement stairs could not be opened from the basement, leaving Hattab and his roommate only one way out.
The building inspector determined that the basement apartments violated a state statute and a city ordinance prohibiting cellar space from being used for dwelling units. He ordered the landlord, Louis Fils, to strip it back to a cellar, and to make repairs.
An inspector slapped a notice on the door of 31 Hillcrest Ave.: NOT FIT FOR HUMAN HABITATION.
Hattab’s roommate told police they both had lived in the basement for five years. The man said he previously lived in an apartment at 46 Scofield Ave., also owned by Fils.
When the medical examiner’s report was complete, it showed that Hattab’s carbon monoxide saturation rate was, in fact, higher – 84 percent – more than twice the fatality threshold.
It was a death, and an apartment, you’d wish on no one.
It happened in Stamford, Connecticut’s most affluent big city. It wasn’t the first time – an East Side man was killed when he fell from a rickety ladder leading to his illegal attic apartment and broke his neck, Assistant Police Chief Richard Conklin said.
It will happen again, Conklin said, because there are similar apartments all over the city. In the Hattab case, police are pursuing charges against the landlord, Conklin said.
“We feel there was a neglect that reaches the level of criminality,” he said.
Hattab was close to his family, kind to his friends, “by all accounts, a very nice, hard-working man,” Conklin said. Hattab held two jobs, one at Boston Market and the other at Greenwich Audi. He came to the U.S. in 2005.
In the statewide struggle to create more housing, you hear a lot about allowing homeowners to add accessory apartments and pressing developers to build “affordable” units. But you hear almost nothing about cracking down on the untold number of illegal apartments that present hellish living conditions, even as landlords charge high rents for them.
“A lot of that income goes unreported,” Conklin said. “It’s under the table.”
Stamford residents have said for years that illegal apartments kill neighborhoods – houses get carved into tiny units, structures are wedged into yards, streets are overrun with parked vehicles, and sidewalks become dumping grounds for mattresses and furniture.
The story of Abdelouahab Hattab demonstrates how illegal apartments are even deadlier for those with little choice but to live in them.