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Static Electricity Blamed for Virginia Gas Pump Fire

February, 2009

Chester County authorities believe that a flash fire sparked by static electricity is to blame for the burn injuries that a 10-year-old boy and his mother received after they filled their car's gas tank at a local service station at Hull Street and Turner Road.

The boy was reported in critical condition at VCU Medical Center with burns to his face and torso. His mother suffered less severe burns, and was listed in stable condition, Chesterfield fire Capt. Keith Chambers said. The name's of the victims have not been released at this time.

Shortly after the of the 8 a.m. blaze, fire officials determined that static electricity was the likely cause of the gas pump fire. The car was not damaged.

"It is rare, but it does occur," said Chambers, Chesterfield's deputy fire marshal.

Just before yesterday's fire, the mother had finished pumping gas and removed the nozzle from her vehicle. The car's engine apparently was off, witnesses told investigators. The mother then passed the nozzle to her son, who was returning it to the pump holder when a spark of static electricity ignited gasoline vapors. The mother told investigators she saw flames around the nozzle's tip. The spark was enough to ignite the fumes, and set him on fire. He was rolling on the ground aflame, until someone used a jacket to smother the flames.

"Usually those nozzles have some residual gasoline left in them, depending how you pick them up out of your vehicle," Chambers said.

Battalion Chief David E. Bailey said firefighters arrived within four minutes of the call. Bailey said a nearby Verizon employee, later identified by the company as Brian Stanley, took off his coat and helped extinguish the flames on the boy.

Although the investigation is continuing, fire officials said they are almost certain that static electricity is to blame. Chambers said static electricity is common in the winter months, because the air is so dry.

Experts say the static usually builds up when you move around on fabric seats in your car, and they say there's an easy way to avoid disaster. "The big thing is just touch some metal before you start pumping your fuel," says Fairfax City Assistant Fire Chief Timothy Butters. "At some point, you just touch that," he says pointing to a special discharge plate at the city's refueling station. "That will ground or discharge the static electricity."


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