The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

Features

September 2, 2011

Clinton man burned by gel fuel

CLINTON — On the same day nine companies recalled about 2 million bottles and jugs of the gel fuel used in fire pots because of the risk of serious burns, two Clinton men shared their story in the hope of getting people to take the recall seriously.

Clinton Police Officer Wes Unke and Dr. Mark Leding on Thursday shared that story while standing in the screened-in porch where they saved the life of their friend, Gene Othon, after he was set afire by flames shooting out of a container of gel fuel.

Leding said it happened around 8:30 p.m. Aug. 1 as the three were sharing a light meal at Leding’s house while seated at a round patio table. With very little light available in the porch, Leding earlier had lit a fire pot, which is an outdoor ceramic decoration, hoping the flames would provide some extra brightness. The flame had gone out and Leding decided to pour more gel fuel into the center of the pot. He had made sure there was no flame burning, as per the manufacturer’s directions.

What he remembered next was the popping sound coming from the container of fuel as he poured it, then the flash of fire that shot from the container’s opening, across the table and onto Othon’s chest.

“It was a small fire on his shirt at first,” Reding said.

“But within 12 to 15 seconds his shirt was on fire and the flames were up over his head.”

Horrified, Unke yelled for Othon to roll on the floor. They ripped off his shirt — the buttons on Thursday were still in the same place where they fell that night — and smothered the flames with a nearby sheet.

The men knew it wasn’t good.

Leding, an anesthesiologist, called ahead to Mercy Medical Center North to let hospital personnel know that a man with serious burns was on his way in. After arriving there, Othon was given narcotics in an attempt to blunt the pain that was surfacing and an IV. Othon’s mouth also was burned from the heat. The seriousness of his condition, which included third-degree burns over his right arm and chest and first- and second-degree burns to his neck, led doctors to send him to Iowa City. Initially in critical condition and on a ventilator for 10 days, he remained there for two weeks and then was treated at Mercy Medical Center South for two weeks. As it turned out, he had sustained burns over 14 percent of his body, with 9 percent measured as third-degree burns.

Leding and Unke also were injured. Nine of Unke’s fingers sustained second-degree burns, and as he described it, swelled up like grapes. Leding was sent to Iowa City to be treated for the burns to his hands, which was very important to do because of his profession in the medical field.

But, Leding said, the worst part for him has been the emotional trauma of the incident. He wouldn’t go back onto the porch in the couple weeks after the accident because of the memory; since then he only has been there a few times.

Standing in that porch Thursday afternoon, Leding said it was very difficult for him knowing his friend was in the hospital in critical condition. But he also was angered that what is now being described as a dangerous product was allowed to be on the shelves in the first place.

Thursday’s Consumer Product Safety Commission recall bears that out. The commission reports the gel fuel has been linked to several dozen cases in which people were burned when they couldn’t tell whether the flame was out. Pouring more gel on a burning pot can lead to dangerous flares or burns, the commission said.

Leding reiterated that the flash fires created by the thick, alcohol-based gels pose an even greater hazard because they are difficult to put out with water and more effectively stopped with dry powder extinguishers.

While the commission began investigating firepots a few months ago and issued a flash fire hazard warning on pourable gel fuels in June, Leding said that warning wasn’t enough and even though modified warnings were later put out, he wonders if consumers knew the true risks.

As for the fire at Leding’s house, he believes it happened not because of flames being present in the pot, but said the fuel, which is burning in what amounts to be in a metal shot glass, contains alcohol that was easily ignited by the heat as he poured it into the still-hot container.

“I just can’t comprehend that the little tiny flame had jumped 6 to 8 feet,” he said.

Unke and Leding said they felt the time was right to share their story since Othon has since returned home to the neighborhood and also because Labor Day is fast approaching and they are fearful that people will use the firepots and gel not knowing the dangers.

Their fears echo that of the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s leader, Inez Tenenbaum, whom the Associated Press reported Thursday as saying the agency wants to make consumers aware of the recall with the approaching Labor Day weekend.

She urged people to stop using the pourable gel fuel and to contact the manufacturer or distributor for a refund.

“It’s a dangerous product that we want to warn consumers to stop using,” she said. “Stop, drop and roll or trying to smother it (the flames) does not work.”

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