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Error fuels base service station blaze

  • Published
  • By James Coburn
  • 37th Training Wing Public Affairs
A 50-year-old retired technical sergeant was severely burned on both legs recently after static electricity ignited gasoline as he filled gas cans in the bed of his pickup truck at the base shoppette here.

Lackland Fire Chief J.L. Ball said a placard on the gasoline pumps warns motorists to put gas cans on the ground to fill them, but people might not notice them.

In a video taken by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service store's security camera, four bystanders are shown frantically using their own clothing to help put out the flames burning on the man's gasoline-soaked pants legs and shoes.

Tech. Sgt. Ed Jones, a Warrior Week instructor and one of the bystanders, removed his battle dress uniform top and wrapped it around the man's legs to help extinguish the flames, but they kept re-igniting. Thinking quickly, he pulled a window cleaner reservoir from a rack at the pump and poured the water on the man's legs.

A shoppette mechanic rushed the man to nearby Wilford Hall Medical Center in his pickup. Jones, who accompanied the man, also was treated for minor burns he received as he smothered flames.

Safety officials long have warned people not to fill gas cans sitting inside vehicles or in truck beds because of the danger of gasoline vapors being ignited by static electricity.

Another hazard reported recently is getting back into a car and not touching a metal ground before returning to the refueling nozzle and causing a static electricity spark.

In a video of the incident, the man is seen standing in the bed of his pickup as he fills five 5-gallon gas cans (three plastic and two metal) over a period of several minutes before a flash fire erupts.

Lt. Col. Brian Mullin, a former safety officer at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, is seen driving up to an adjacent pump and starting to fill his vehicle when he notices what the man is doing just before the fire.

Mullin, now undergoing instructor pilot training at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, said the retiree "did one of the classic things you shouldn't do ... refueling external gas cans (above ground) with plastic or rubber shoes on. This is an extremely textbook case of static electricity igniting an instantaneous fire.

"I was moving my lips to tell him, 'Sir, don't do that,' when the first flame started in the back of his truck," added Mullin.

"I saw the flame, and I told him to jump," he said. "He dropped the hose, which sprayed gas all over the truck. I told him to jump and run, which would have been really a good thing to do, but instead, he tried to throw the 5-gallon can that he had just fueled out the back to get it away from his truck, and that started the whole area on fire.

"So now he's on fire, the back of the truck's on fire, and the can that just hit the ground started a big fire behind the truck."

The man ran between the burning truck and the pump toward the store before he dropped and rolled on the pavement.

Mullin ran after the man, ripping off his two T-shirts to beat out the burning clothes, "but they did not do much good because they (caught) on fire," he said.

Jones ran to use his BDU top on the flames, and another man and a woman also helped the retiree.

Firefighters arrived on scene within two minutes and extinguished the blazing truck five minutes after arriving.

Ball said the damage to the AAFES fuel pump was estimated at $10,000 to $15,000 and to the retiree's 1993 Mazda pickup, $2,500. The retiree, who received third-degree burns of his legs below the knees, later was transferred to local Brooke Army Medical Center's burn unit for further treatment.