Officials suspect poisoning in deaths of Hualien pair

STAFF WRITER

Wed, Jan 17, 2001 - Page 2

Hualien prosecutors suspect that a local couple who died with mysterious symptoms may have been poisoned after a forensics examination yesterday raised questions about spots found on the bodies.

Huang Hsueh-chiao (黃雪嬌) died on Jan. 13 after showing a mixture of flu-related and mysterious symptoms. Her husband, Wu Mu-kuei (吳木桂), died the following day after developing a high fever during sleep. The couple's 15-year-old daughter also developed similar symptoms and is now under observation at the Veterans General Hospital in Taipei.

The sudden deaths gave rise to fears of an enterovirus or Ebola outbreak, but doctors have ruled out these possibilities, saying the pair had apparently died from heart and lung failure resulting from inflammation of heart tissues and pneumonia.

A post-mortem examination by forensic experts revealed mysterious spots on the bodies, leading prosecutors to suspect hydrofluoric acid poisoning.

Wu ran a marble processing factory, where the acid is frequently used to wash crude marble. Police had not found any trace of hydrofluoric acid in the couple's house, but were looking into whether the family had had any business disputes at the factory.

Doctors from Taipei Veterans General Hospital, however, said the couple's young daughter did not show signs of hydrofluoric acid poisoning.

Ke Chin (葛瑾), an attending physician at the toxicology department, said the girl's symptoms looked more like a virus infection, though doctors were still conducting tests for traces of poison in the girl's body.

Doctors said her white blood cell count returned to near normal levels yesterday and that she should be allowed to leave her quarantine ward within two days.

Hospital staff were still reluctant to inform the girl about the fate of her parents, fearing the trauma may worsen her condition.

Earlier, officials from the Department of Health had found large numbers of dead rats around the Wu family's house, but said that the possibility of a rat-borne disease appeared low, given that neighboring families apparently have not been affected.

Relatives of the dead couple said they did not know of anyone who might possibly want to murder the family.