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Cat raises alarm of toxic carbon monoxide at French mountain refuge

The animal and later a guardian began to feel unwell late at night, leading to a full emergency evacuation. Seven people were taken to hospital

A view of the Mont Blanc Alpine mountain range

The refuge is a popular accommodation point for skiers and adventurers in the Chamonix mountain range, near Mont Blanc Pic: saiko3p / Shutterstock

A cat helped to raise the alarm at a mountain refuge in France last week, after high levels of the toxic gas carbon monoxide resulted in the rapid overnight evacuation of the 31 people inside.

Mountain rescue teams (PGHM Haute-Savoie), gendarmerie rescuers, doctors, local mairie staff and two emergency helicopters were dispatched to the refuge d’Argentière in the Mont Blanc mountain range (Haute-Savoie) overnight after a guardian reported feeling unwell and called emergency services at 22:27 on Thursday, March 10.

Her cat helped to raise the alarm and offered clues that something wider was wrong, as it had started experiencing breathing difficulties before the guardian fell ill.

Medical responders on the scene tested the refuge and found that levels of the toxic gas were above the alert threshold.

All present (27 customers and four staff members) were tested for carbon monoxide poisoning, and on medical advice, six people were transported by helicopter to the Sallanches hospital. One woman in a critical condition was driven to hospital in Geneva, where she was placed in a hyperbaric chamber.

Emergency services helped 17 others on the scene, and six others were given alternative accommodation by the mairie. Investigators sought to find the source of the carbon monoxide, which is thought to have been released by a stove being switched on accidentally.

One of the firefighters on the scene commented on the early warning given by the cat, and said: “As with many catastrophes, it seems that an animal here played a lifesaving role.”

The incident happened six days after the refuge, which is located at 2,771 metres altitude and is close to both the Italian and Swiss borders, had reopened for the cross country ski season. 

It was forced to close for 24 hours pending an investigation into the toxic leak and to ensure it was safe to reopen.

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