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Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Paul Godfrey: That resort was a gas!

When a group of six or eight individuals shares an experience, it’s often the case that their stories about it change over the years, depending on who retells it. Perhaps that’s what makes the tale of how four couples almost lost their lives during the 1991 Minnesota Defense Lawyers Association President’s Day meeting at a Brainerd resort so remarkable: The people who lived the drama remember it almost exactly the same way, with each person adding a detail or two that the others had forgotten.

Here’s how Paul Godfrey, a principle actor in the story, recalls the fateful evening. “We went up on a Thursday night after work for the MDLA meeting, and we were gathered in the [Tim] Eidens’ unit for hors d’oeuvres and beers before turning in. No one was drinking very much. I think the guys had maybe a beer each, and I don’t think the women drank anything at all. So after we hung out a while, everyone went to their units to go to bed.” 

The units Godfrey refers to were six separate suites in a standalone townhouse-style building, three on the first floor and three on the second. The three upper units were occupied by Tim and Julie Eiden and their baby daughter, Katie; Cathy Caitlin and her boyfriend, Kenny; and John Guthmann (later to become a Ramsey County District Court chief judge), his wife Teresa, and their infant son, Alex. Paul and Mary Sue Godfrey took one of the lower units; the others remained empty. They had all become friends because each of the couples included an attorney working for the same St. Paul law firm.

Continuing the story, Godfrey relates, “Sometime in the early morning hours, Julie Eiden was pounding on the door of our unit: ‘Paul, you have to come help me—Tim fell down in the bathroom and I can’t push the door open.’” Mary Sue Godfrey, eight months pregnant at the time, recalls returning from a 3:00 a.m. bathroom break to hear a thud on the floor upstairs, followed by Julie’s call for help. Tim Eiden only remembers waking in the middle of the night after having fallen into an exhausted slumber with all his clothes on, even though he’d had only one beer.

Both Godfreys remember racing up the stairs, by which time Tim had managed to raise himself to one knee on the bathroom floor. It was at this point that Paul Godfrey opened the door on his surprised friend—whose look, Godfrey recalls, clearly said, “What are you doing here?”

“What’s the matter?” Godfrey asked. “I don’t know,” said Eidens, “my heart is racing.” Except that it wasn’t—Godfrey found a pulse rate of only 60 when he checked. And then he glanced back into the bedroom just in time to see Julie collapse. “She just fell over,” he recalls. “She didn’t put her hands out or anything, just tipped over. I still didn’t know what was wrong with Tim, but I decided that Julie needed help more at that point.” Having come up the stairs on Paul’s heels, Mary Sue arrived in time to see baby Katie throwing up in her crib as Julie toppled over without a word. The Godfreys didn’t know what was happening, but the situation was clearly serious. Mary Sue scooped up the baby while Paul carried Julie in his arms down the stairs to their unit, returning quickly to drag Tim to safety.  

With the Eiden family laid out in the lower unit, Godfrey called the Emergency Room at the Brainerd hospital. It wasn’t long before his suspicion was confirmed: carbon monoxide poisoning. The ER nurse told him that Cathy and Kenny had driven themselves to the hospital earlier because Kenny was experiencing a severe headache. They didn’t realize at the time that anyone else might be sick, but when Godfrey called in, the pieces fell into place. “Get everyone out of there,” the nurse told him. So he went back upstairs to the last unit where, unknown to him, the Guthmanns had been waging their own battle with the deadly fumes.

John Guthmann remembers being restless as he slept, and having a bad headache. “It was roughly 3:00 when the knock on the door came,” he recalls. “I remember having rubber legs when I popped out of bed and my face hit the wall. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my face was all black and blue the next day. I managed to get to the door and open it and I remember it being really cold because I was wearing only my underwear and it was about six below.” While Guthmann recalls the paramedics being present, Godfrey remembers that he arrived first, the words of the 911 operator ringing in his ears. 

“I went around to the Guthmanns’ door but I couldn’t raise them,” he says. “I was pounding and pounding and I was just looking for something to break the window when John opened the door. He was on his knees, hanging onto the doorframe with both hands trying to steady himself. And he had the same quizzical look on his face that Tim had had. I didn’t have to carry him; I think that’s when the paramedics came. They may have taken people out. I do remember their baby, Alex, was throwing up at one point.” That matches Guthmann’s memory, as he clearly recalls his wife Teresa frantically calling out to the paramedics not to forget their son, who was lying unnoticed in a portable crib in an alcove of the room.

Everyone was driven in two ambulances to the Brainerd hospital—including Godfrey, who at first insisted on driving himself. “Cooler heads prevailed,” as he says now, and he ended up in the back of an ambulance “advising” the driver. “Can’t you go faster? Put that siren on.

I want to see the lights on the trees,” Eiden recalls Godfrey saying as they sped down the wintry road. Within hours, everyone had been treated with oxygen and released, the emergency room doctors having surmised that airlifts to a hyperbaric chamber would not be necessary. Even so, Mary Sue stayed attached to a fetal monitor for most of the morning to monitor the health of the baby she was carrying. (Charlie was born one month later and has never shown effects of his scary night at the Brainerd resort.)

Afterward, everyone recalls, the resort manager tried to appease the guests who had almost died by offering ice cream sundaes and the use of a jukebox for a private “sock hop”—an offer no one seemed to find appealing. Inexplicably, he also tried to return them to the same rooms. They insisted on being moved elsewhere. Even though the problem had been quickly traced to a technician’s mistake with the heating/cooling system, they were not eager to test their luck. But driving past that townhouse later in the day, Godfrey realized that others had been placed in the units—prompting him to contact the new guests to warn them of the potential health hazard. 

Some of the couples used an attorney to recoup medical costs from the resort’s insurance company and then, mostly, the incident faded into their collective memories, to be recalled only now and then. While no one seems to have suffered long-term physical effects, Chief Judge John Guthmann relates this lasting impact: He always has two carbon monoxide monitors in his home, having made himself something of an expert on the devices (a company called The Nest makes his favorite monitor). Nor is the incident forgotten by Guthmann’s elderly mother, who still greets Paul Godfrey by saying, “I remember you. You’re the one who saved John’s life that time.” While Godfrey doesn’t go that far in his account, it’s clear that some combination of luck—the lower unit they occupied didn’t get the full impact of the carbon monoxide—and quick thinking by both Godfreys played a critical role in ensuring that “three-quarters of a law firm didn’t get wiped out,” as Tim Eiden puts it. Guthmann speaks for the group with this summation: “We were lucky. We were only an hour or two from a very bad ending.”

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