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Man Burned in Lackland AFB Refueling Fire

Jennifer Hazen, Editor
February 18, 2003

On December 11, 2002, Robert Clewis a 58 year old retired Air Force Sergeant from Natalia, Texas. was filling gas cans in the back of his 1993 Mazda truck when he became a static refueling fire statistic. Mr. Clewis was burned over approximately 17% of his body mostly in the lower leg areas. Some of the burns were 3rd degree. Surveillance cameras pickup the scene as it unfolded. Bystanders helped Mr. Clewis extinguish the flames.

This is a classic case of static fire ignition due to gasoline. Mr. Clewis was filling gas cans in the back of his pick-up truck. This has been a problem for years but the public still does not know about it or does not understand it. When asked if there were warnings at the gas pumps, Mr. Clewis said," I wouldn't be sitting here in the hospital if I saw a warning." The warnings at gasoline refueling stations even when present in some form continue seem to be less obvious than is necessary for effective warning of the public.

Mr. Clewis had 7 gas containers in the back of his truck. There were 2 - metal 5 gal. "Gerry" cans, one - 1.5 gal. plastic container and 4 - 2.5 gal. plastic containers. He filled the first metal can then the 5 plastic cans in sequence at the highest rate of flow he could and not run them over. Mr. Clewis stated that he could see the gasoline in the metal can and had stopped it before it got to the top. In the plastic cans he could see the level though the container walls and stopped before they reached overflowing. When he put the nozzle of the gas pump into the last metal can, he heard a "whoosh" and saw flames coming out of the can. He tried to put it out but could not. People around him were yelling for him to get out of the truck. He picked up the gas can and threw it out of the truck. He then jumped out on the side of the now spreading fire from the can he threw out. His pants caught on fire as he tried to run away. Bystanders were screaming for him to drop and roll, which he did. Some helpful people extinguished the blaze on him by beating the flames with their shirts and throwing a windshield washing thankful of water on his legs. Mr. Clewis was taken to the hospital in the back of another truck. He remained in the hospital until February 18th. Mr. Clewis had to leave the hospital with "jello" casts on both legs. He should make a very good recovery with time.

When gasoline cans are filled in the back of a vehicle such as the bed of a truck, they are insulated from ground by the bed liner and (if plastic cans) by their materials of construction. Also and very importantly, they are lifted off ground by some distance which makes the potential or voltage on the liquid inside much higher than if they were on the ground and still insulated electrically. Their capacitance is reduced significantly by being lifted off the ground (Q=CV). We have measured approximately 5,000 Volts potential from a 2.5 gallon plastic container of gasoline being filled at 7 gallons per minute and lifted 25 cm off ground. Mr. Clewis had the possibility of greater than 30,000 Volts potential on the 5 plastic containers in his truck. He had also by the time he had filled the last plastic container, filled the truck bed with over 16 gallons of gasoline vapors from the cans already filled. This vapor was available for ignition in the truck bed. The last metal can was filled with gasoline vapors. The 5 plastic cans (as well as possibly the insulated first metal can) were projecting a high electrical field on the last can and Mr. Clewis. When he touched the grounded pump nozzle to the last metal can, the induced field on the can caused a spark to the nozzle in the ignitable vapors of the bed and the canů.WHOOSH!!! The picture shown here is an accurate re-enactment of Mr. Clewis' situation at the Gaston County Fire College in North Carolina by Fire Marshall Jim Pharr and Steve Fowler (Publisher of the ESD Journal).

Mr. Clewis should have known not to do this. This is a classic case of static ignition with all the parameters aligned perfectly. The problem is that Mr. Clewis should not have to be a static expert to know how to refuel a gas can. The warnings if on the pumps at the Lackland AFB gas station were not obvious enough for Mr. Clewis. Would they be obvious to you or me? Larger and more obvious warnings need to be where the refueling public sees them. I look for the warning every time I go to a gas station and sometimes I have a difficult time finding them if they are there at all.



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