Sunday, June 14, 2015

Fire on the Freeway

The late model Nissan Altima was on the right shoulder of the North Sam Houston toll way, its driver and passengers, a woman holding an infant, standing a few paces behind. Wisps of steam (or smoke?) were wafting from under the hood of the car as I whizzed past. In a split second, I checked my rear view, down-shifted and signaled, and quickly edged out of traffic and onto the shoulder, 50-yards beyond the smoldering car. It was 2:36pm on another wise balmy Saturday afternoon.

I was already dialing 911 as I got out of my car and started walking back towards the decidedly smoking Nissan, the women standing beyond. The smoke was thicker, white and billowing through the front grille and out from under the front wheel wells. Oncoming toll road traffic was already veering away from the smoke. I prayed the car wouldn’t explode as I walked past…and I prayed I wouldn’t get hit by an oncoming vehicle, obscured by the pall.

The women were a mother and daughter…and a 7-month old granddaughter. Three generations of precious cargo. They were safe. The younger mother was Military, and concerned that all her possessions were in the smoldering car, including her military ID. We stood on the shoulder and waited for help to arrive.

The smoke began to subside, so we decided to retrieve as much from the car as we could, while we could. An olive duffel bag, a purse, a diaper bag, and another tote bag were pulled from the foggy interior. 

Opening the door may have been a mistake. The oxygen starved fire had been choking on its own fumes, but with a fresh supply of air, it began to renew its intensity. Orange tongues began to lap up between the spaces between the hood and fenders. Gray, acrid smoke started to roil up from under the dashboard. 

We grabbed the bags we’d retrieved, and ran towards the rear of the car. The driver quickly keyed the release for the trunk—another bag of belongings reclaimed—but no time to untie and untangle the baby’s car seat. At least the kid was safely out of the car.

We carried the bags further away from the car, which was now being rapidly engulfed in flames. Thickening smoke was climbing in a dark column, and obscuring the toll road service road below. Angry orange flares attacked the open passenger door. The windshield popped and shattered. The passenger airbags exploded, and bits of plastic were hurled aloft as the burning car hissed and crackled.

The first wreckers arrived. One parked directly behind us on the shoulder, lights flashing. Another blocked the outside right lane with his truck. A few seconds later, a Harris County Sheriff’s Deputy parked his Pursuit Suburban in the next adjacent lane. Traffic on the toll way was being concentrated into four inside lanes. Passersby were slowing for the spectacle—many holding their cell phones up to capture the inferno as they drove past.

The wind whipped the fire into a frenzy. No longer restricted by panes of glass, the cauldron seethed through the greenhouse openings. Unimaginable chemical reactions vented noxious vapors, and anything that wasn’t metal drooped and sagged before feeding the fire, or puddling into a shapeless mass beneath the car.

A siren could be heard in the distance, and a Houston Fire Department firetruck rolled up on the scene. Two firemen wearing protective gear leaped from the cab and wrestled a thick hose from the side of the pumper. They began to douse the inferno with a blast of water. A heavy dose of CO2 finished off the flagging flames, and a continuous stream of water from the pumper’s hose cooled the hissing wreckage, the metal clicking and complaining as it contracted. It was 2:51pm.
Response time: 15-minutes.

A car fire is nothing to fool around with.
If it happens to you, get out of the car and get as far away as you can as quickly as you can. 

The drive of the Nissan told me she "heard a pop--like a blowout." They pulled over to check it out, smelled smoke, and got out of the car.

This family was lucky—doubly-so: They escaped injury and managed to retrieve a few items, including the daughter’s military ID.
But even that can be replaced.

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