Cal Poly student found dead in car filled with toxic gas

nwilson@thetribunenews.comMarch 16, 2012 

A 19-year-old Cal Poly freshman was found dead in a car filled with poisonous gas on campus Friday, the last day of winter quarter exams.

Cal Poly officials identified the individual as Osvaldo Julian Ponce, a physics major.

A construction worker saw someone inside a parked Lexus about 3 p.m. with closed windows and two homemade signs warning people of the poisonous gas, Cal Poly police Chief Bill Watton said.

“We don’t know how long he was inside the vehicle,” Watton said. “We don’t suspect any foul play at this point.”

Watton couldn’t confirm that the death was a suicide. He said police are investigating.

The chemical inside the car was identified as hydrogen sulfide, a compound that is relatively easy to make and potentially lethal in high concentrations, said Dave Ragsdale, Cal Poly’s director of environmental health and safety.

The gas, also known as “swamp gas” and “sewer gas,” smells like rotten eggs and can be made from a mixture of items purchased at stores.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, hydrogen sulfide in high concentrations can cause “shock, convulsions, inability to breathe, extremely rapid unconsciousness, coma and death. Effects can occur within a few breaths, and possibly a single breath.”

According to his Facebook page, Ponce graduated from Wilson Classical High School in Long Beach in 2011 and was scheduled to graduate from Cal Poly in the class of 2015.

“This is so terribly sad,” Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong said. “My heart goes out to his family and to his friends. To all of our students, I urge you to please, please ask for help if you ever feel signs of such hopelessness. We want to do all that we can for you to be healthy and safe.”

San Luis Obispo police and fire officials, along with a hazardous materials safety team, spent hours at the parking lot removing gas from the vehicle.

After doing so, they conducted a forensic investigation before removing the body.

The investigation and safety concerns led authorities to shut down Slack Street in San Luis Obispo between Grand Avenue and Longview Lane.

Suicide trend

Japan reported a trend of poisonous gas suicides when, during a three-month period in 2008, a total of 208 people took their lives by mixing household chemicals, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. Chemical suicides similar to those in Japan have been reported increasingly in the United States, with the majority occurring inside automobiles, the CDC reported on its website.

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