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Spring 2004

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Feature   |   Spring 2004

Life-saving lesson

Fire ignites a campaign to educate the public about safety at the gas pump


S
ometimes you learn a lesson so profound that you just have to pass it on. A Purdue Extension educator for more than 20 years, Cathy Burkett had taught thousands of educational programs to Indiana residents. But when she became the victim of a static electricity fire at a gas pump, she discovered that it's never too late to learn a new lesson—or to teach one.

After Cathy Burkett was burned in a static electricity fire at this gas station in May 2000, she helped create a Purdue Extension curriculum to educate the public about safety at the gas pump. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

A painful lesson

On May 15, 2000, Burkett was driving home after giving an Extension program in Carthage , a small town in northern Rush County, Ind., when she pulled her minivan into a gas station on the north side of Rushville. The station wasn't one she normally visited, but it was on her way home, so she stopped to fill up. She turned off the ignition and, as she had done hundreds of times before, climbed out of the vehicle, leaving the door open.

After swiping her credit card to pay at the pump, she put the nozzle in the gas tank, set it on automatic and got back inside to record her mileage. When Burkett left the vehicle again it was to the sight of flames coming from around the nozzle. “I was amazed when I saw the flames,” she says. “It's a feeling of disbelief. You say to yourself, 'That's a fire—no it's not.'” But it was a fire, caused by a spark from static electricity.

Instinctively, Burkett yanked the nozzle out of the vehicle, dropped it and ran for the station. “I was afraid the flames would follow the fuel and blow up the gas tank,” she recalls. Even though the gas nozzle kicked off when she dropped it, the fire continued burning on the pavement. And, in her haste to get away, Burkett stepped right through the flames.

"I ran inside and told the attendant to shut the pumps off,” she says. It wasn't until after the station employee had called 911 that they both realized her left pant leg was burning. The attendant used Burkett's coat to put out the flames, but the damage had already been done. Her polyester pants and nylon hose had melted, severely burning her leg. She had second- and third-degree burns over 80 percent of her left leg, which ultimately required numerous skin grafts. She spent 18 days in the hospital, missed three-and-a-half months of work and was left with a badly scarred leg insensitive to heat or cold.

 

 

© 2004 Purdue University School of Agriculture

 

 

 

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