Summit County couple fell ill at Dominican hotel where 3 tourists died
A string of American tourist deaths at a hotel in the Dominican Republic has flung a Colorado couple into the center of attention a year after the two became ill while staying at the hotel.
Kaylynn Knull of Monument and her boyfriend Tom Schwander of Dillon were vacationing at the Bahia Principe Hotel La Romana in the Dominican Republic last June when the couple became severely ill. They believe the illness came on as a result of exposure to harmful chemicals being sprayed on plants around the resort, though the hotel refuses to cooperate in identifying the substance, according to Schwander.
The couple is in the process of suing the hotel to determine what chemicals they might have been exposed to during their trip, and as more Americans continue to get sick and die at the hotel, Schwander and Knull’s story has found new life.
“We’ve been doing this for a year,” Schwander said about their efforts to hold the hotel accountable. “It sucks people had to die for people to care.”
Miranda Schaup-Werner of Pennsylvania fell ill and died shortly after checking into the hotel on May 25. Five days later, Maryland couple Edward Nathaniel Holmes and Cynthia Ann Day were found dead at the hotel, appearing to have suffered from respiratory failure and fluid in the lungs, according to an Associated Press report.
“That was unnerving — the amount of people that stay at that resort, the amount of people that were probably exposed and the fact that all these people have died,” Schwander said. “Thirty or 40 people have told us they’ve had similar experiences. How many people didn’t come forward? How many people have died not knowing about it? … That’s really hard to swallow.”
Schwander and Knull’s issues began about a week after they arrived, when their trip suddenly went from island adventure to dealing with violent illness. Schwander said they woke up one morning to a strange smell in their room and severe headaches. After going to breakfast, the smell still lingered in their room.
Schwander said they called the front desk to no avail, and the hotel only took action after a maid came in hours later and also smelled the strange odor, noting that it smelled like the “stuff they spray on the flowers.” Schwander said the hotel allowed him to smell the substance that they were spraying on the flowers, and he said it was the same smell in his room, possibly circulating through a gap in the door or the air conditioning unit.
He said that the grounds supervisor at the hotel also recognized the smell in their room as the same substance being sprayed on the flowers. Schwander said they were given a portable fan and told it was fine to stay in the room. But hours later, their conditions continued to deteriorate, and the smell persisted.
“It was getting worse and worse,” Schwander said. “We started tearing up and felt pain and started to get nauseous, and the headaches were worse. … We went to the front desk and said, ‘This is messed up. We don’t want to be in the room anymore. Can you tell us what those chemicals are that you just admitted to us were sprayed in the room?’ They refused to give us any information. They just clammed up and refused to give us anything.”
Schwander and Knull were upgraded to a room at the Luxury Bahia Principe Bouganville, which shares a property with the Bahia Principe Hotel, but noticed the mood of the trip had changed, and they continued to get sicker.
“We started getting dirty looks, and nobody wanted to help us anymore,” Schwander said. “The front desk kept telling us to email a customer service desk, and meanwhile we’re getting sicker and sicker. That, mixed with not really feeling very welcome anymore, made us decide to cut our vacation short.”
Schwander, the former director of Ambulance Services at St. Vincent Hospital in Leadville, said he recognized the symptoms as exposure to organophosphates: human-made chemicals commonly used in pesticides that can cause nausea, headaches and severe respiratory issues among other symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Doctors confirmed the couple could be dealing with organophosphate poisoning but told them they needed the name of the chemical they were exposed to so they could test for it.
The couple began reaching out to lawyers in the Dominican Republic to convince the hotel to name the chemicals, eventually finding help from a lawyer out of Santa Domingo. But navigating the legal process out of country has been difficult.
Following the deaths at the hotel last month, Knull and Schwander decided to speak out about their experience and only then learned the details of their lawsuit.
“I thought I was going to get a lawyer who would go to the hotel and say, ‘Hey, I’m a lawyer, and I don’t want to press a suit, but I want the name of the chemical.’ Instead he pressed a million dollar suit, which he didn’t tell us he was doing. … We didn’t know we were pressing a million dollar lawsuit until we were being interviewed by CNN in our kitchen.”
Schwander said their sense of disillusionment with their lawyer has continued, as he’s failed to update the couple or give them additional information on the process. However, their lawyer did note that he expects a judge’s decision on the case within the next three months.
But the ongoing legal battle is only one of their concerns. Schwander said since going public with their story, he’s received a number of harassing messages from Dominican nationals through social media accusing them of defaming the hotel, damaging tourism in the country and trying to exploit recent deaths for profit (though the couple’s lawsuit was filed before last month’s fatalities). Schwander said the FBI and local law enforcement are aware of and monitoring the issue.
Schwander said it’s unclear how the exposure has affected him and Knull over the past year. He said along with some digestive issues requiring them to be careful about their respective diets, both have experienced issues exercising as hard as they were able to before the illness, noting a lack of stamina.
Schwander also said he’s spoken with numerous others with similar experiences to him and Knull since their story went public, checking into the same hotel in a similar time frame and getting sick.
“Now we’ve had 30 or 40 people who have reached out to us,” Schwander said. “They just didn’t do what we did and decide to press a suit. And the only reason we pressed the suit was we wanted to identify the chemical. Something is happening, and it’s hard for me to put my finger on it. I’m not an investigator. But I’m not going to go down there and check myself anymore; that’s for sure.”