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Vacuuming gasoline--a bad idea.

It was early May, and my grass needed to be cut. Before I could start, though, I had to get some gas for my mowers. I grabbed two approved containers (a 5-gallon and a 1-gallon), jumped in my car, and headed to the local service station, just 15 minutes away. Everything was OK until I returned home and opened the trunk lid to find that the small container had tipped over and emptied its contents into the trunk.

I first soaked up most of the spill with a beach towel ... and I wish I could tell you my next move was to call an authoritative source for guidance. That isn't what happened, though. Instead, I went to work sucking up the remaining gas with a wet-dry vacuum. Disaster struck moments later when a spark from the vacuum ignited vapors in the car's trunk.

My first reaction was to turn away from the fire, and I remember looking behind me, thinking someone would be there to help. I quickly realized, however, that no one was around, nor would anyone likely come running to help. I live in a neighborhood with 1-acre lots, so the houses aren't that close together.


When I turned back around to the car, I could see the flames were contained inside the trunk. I ran to a fire extinguisher about 6 feet away, at the front of the garage, but couldn't use it because I wasn't able to pull the safety pin. My burned hands were hurting too badly, and I was too excited.

Realizing the extinguisher wasn't going to be of any help, I ran to a phone in the garage and dialed the 9-1-1 operator. I didn't wait to speak to the operator; instead, I laid the phone down and dashed inside the house to get my car keys. I knew the operator would stay on the phone, and besides, I had to get my car backed outside the garage and protect the house, my motorcycle, and everything else I owned, including a cat. I remember thinking I should have enough time before the car exploded. At least, I was willing to take that chance because I didn't want to lose everything.

When I hit the brake pedal to stop my car, the trunk lid slammed shut and smothered the fire. I wondered later why I hadn't just closed the trunk lid to start with but realized I was too afraid of the flames to get near them again.


The local fire department and rescue squad arrived within 10 minutes. During that time, I had spoken to the 9-1-1 operator and had started splashing water from the garage's deep sink on my arms and face to soothe the burns.

Because of heat damage to my throat, I was having trouble swallowing (a very scary experience), so the EMTs sedated and intubated me, and I was airlifted to a local hospital with a burn center. It turned out the 1st- and 2nd-degree burns running from my fingertips up to my elbows didn't warrant admission to the burn center, but I was admitted to the intensive-care center, where I spent 30 hours.

Being intubated absolutely was the worst part of my whole ordeal, mainly because the medical personnel couldn't decide whether to pull out the tube. They brought me back to consciousness at least three times, and on each occasion, I fought with the tube. They eventually decided to leave it in and to keep me sedated for 24 hours. After removal of the tube, they observed my condition for another six hours before releasing me.

I missed four days of work and didn't have use of either hand for six days. Almost two weeks passed before I had use of my left hand, which was severely swollen. My injuries were 99 percent healed after only three weeks, and today, the only remnants are some pinkish, tender skin on my left hand that eventually will fade. Thankfully, there are no scars.

Because I work in a male-dominated environment, I've been careful not to openly discuss my incident. I admittedly caused the problem because of a stupid decision, but I didn't want to hear a bunch of flippant comments about my "doing a dumb women's thing." A few of the guys did ask what caused the spark, and when I explained it was something I was doing, they were respectful and didn't ask any further questions.

My biggest irritation came while my burns were healing. Strangers would ask what had happened, and when I gave them a general outline, nearly all would go on and on about how lucky I was. Sure, I'm lucky to be alive and not horribly disfigured, but it really bothered me they could so casually dismiss the traumatic experience I had been through.

All the wounds aren't visible. I'm still dealing with emotional and financial repercussions that cannot be seen or measured. The damage estimate to my 2001 Acura was more than $9,000, so the insurance company totaled the car. The compensation I received wasn't enough to replace the car, though, which means--you guessed it--I now have an unplanned car payment for the first time in two years.

I only hope my experience serves to remind others about the danger of using an electrical item near gasoline vapors. I especially encourage parents to watch their teenagers during lawn-cutting season and make sure they abide by all the safety procedures.

This author isn't the only victim of such an incident. It didn't take much research to find the tale of a man who suffered the same kind of injuries (1st- and 2nd-degree burns) while doing the same thing (vacuuming gasoline from the trunk of his car) as the author. There was one difference: The explosion in that case sent his garage door flying across the street and rattled windows in numerous nearby homes.

Meanwhile, another man was burned severely while siphoning gas from a motorcycle so he could work on it. He, too, was using a wet-dry vacuum when a spark ignited the vapors, causing an inferno that completely destroyed a duplex (see accompanying photo).--Ed.

Author's Name Withheld by Request
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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