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FOX 6 Investigates Flash Fires

The following is the text from a July 14th Fox 6 News Story

What you don't know at the gas station can cause injury or even death.

(MILWAUKEE) July 14, 2002 -- You carry it with you all the time, and it could spark a deadly explosion at the gas station. In the past three years, static electricity is blamed for at least 150 "flash fires" at the gas pump and may have caused hundreds of others, according to the national Petroleum Equipment Institute.

When you get out of your car, your clothes rub across your car seat. That "charges" your body with as much as 60,000 volts of static electricity. That electricity usually is not a problem at the gas pump because you discharge the static energy when you touch your gas cap, the gas pump, or the outside of your car. But if you get back into your vehicle while you are refueling and then proceed directly to the nozzle (in your gas tank), the static that has re-charged your body can cause a spark, followed by a powerful flash, a fire inside your gas tank and even an explosion.

"I just stood there and thought 'my gas tank is on fire.' I really couldn't believe it," recalls Charlene Pittman. The Wisconsin woman experienced a flash fire while filling her gas tank at a service station in Cameron, WI. "I got back in my van to get my credit card and when I got back out and grabbed the nozzle, it just ignited and was on fire." The fire burned some of Pittman's hair, but she escaped serious injury. Other flash fire victims have not been as lucky.

In 1996, Anne Goucker died at a gas station in Sand Springs, OK. Surveillance video shows the pump she was using to fuel her car exploded, showering Goucker with flaming gasoline. The explosion was caused by a flash fire.

After learning of these fires, some gas stations are now posting signs that warn consumers about the dangers of static electricity at the gas pump. "This is happening and when it does, it can be very serious," says PEI Vice President Bob Renkes.

PEI believes there are between 300 and 500 flash fires each year in the United States, and most of them go unreported. The organization recommends you take the following steps to avoid the risk of a flash fire:

1. Do NOT get back in your vehicle while refueling. Stay outside with the gas pump.
2. Every time you exit your vehicle at a service station, touch something BEFORE you touch the gas nozzle to discharge your static electricity.
3. If a flash fire does occur, do NOT remove the gas nozzle from your vehicle. This will expose the fire to more oxygen and possibly trigger an explosion. Instead, immediately tell the service station attendant to press the "all stop" button to stop the flow of gasoline.

For more information about static electricity-caused flash fires, go to pei.org.

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