My hands are shaking.
I went to Starbucks to do some programming tonight. On the way home, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up some milk and other refinements. Normal evening.
As I came up to the corner of the major cross streets near my house, I saw smoke coming off of a black truck in the middle of Mountain Vista, at the corner, next to the AM/PM gas station. As I got closer, I could see that it was in fact still on fire, and that the driver — a middle-aged Hispanic dude — was trying to beat the flames out with a blanket or something, and get something — I couldn’t tell what through the smoke, maybe a person — out of the truck.
I turned the corner and asked him if he needed help. “Yes, please, help,” he said. I whipped a U-turn and pulled into the gas station. I ran over to the truck, and I immediately realized the engine itself was burning. Drops of burning fuel were pouring out of the engine enclosure and landing on the asphalt, where they stayed on fire. There wasn’t anyone else in the truck — the guy was just grabbing his jacket and his cassettes and shit out of the cab.
So I ran over and asked the gas station clerks — who of course were outside — if they had a fire extinguisher. Some other guy grabbed the one hanging next to the pumps and gave it to me.
This was about the moment when I noticed that the truck was about ten feet away from the station’s propane tank…and next to the tank was an empty car with a ‘FOR SALE’ sign in the window. I suddenly had a vision of the burning fuel finally catching down the fuel line, the truck blowing…and then in quick succession the propane tank and the gas tank in the car…which would have ignited the station’s fuel pumps. The entire corner would have vaporized.
But instead of running away like a sensible person, I took the fire extinguisher and started hosing down the engine, hoping I could put out the fire before the fuel line caught. I almost grabbed the hood to pop it open, but the logical bits of my brain showed me another hideous vision: my hands roasting on the metal of the hood, or the hood blowing open and a plume of fuel-assisted fire turning my face into a marshmallow.
And the driver just stood there next to me, staring at his burning truck. He took a turn spraying the extinguisher at his engine, but that was about it.
“Tu habla English?” I asked. He shook his head. “Shit,” I said. “Mi no habla Español.” I gestured at the truck. “If the fuel line catches,” I said, “boom!” and I pantomimed an explosion. I pointed at the propane tank. “You should get away,” I said. “If this blows, that’ll blow too. Big boom.”
But he shook his head, either because he didn’t understand me or he didn’t want to leave. And the engine kept burning. I tried to get the AM/PM clerk to shut off his pumps, but he wouldn’t do it.
At this point, a cop pulled up and got out of his car, but wouldn’t come out from behind his door. I told him what was happening. “You shouldn’t go near it,” he said, but I kept trying to use the fire extinguisher. “You’re crazy,” I heard him mutter at me.
Finally the fire extinguisher ran out of foam, but the engine was still burning and drops of fuel were still coming out. A huge bright white plume of smoke — presumably from the antifreeze, since oil burns black — was coming out of the seams of the engine compartment like a thunder cloud. It stank of burning plastic and chemicals.
Finally, a minute or two later, the fire department rolled up in a big yellow fire truck and started hosing it off with their gear. I waited to make sure it was okay, and told the cop and the driver good evening and rolled home.
And it wasn’t until I really pulled up to my house, three blocks away, that I realized how close I might have actually come to dying. I know it’s harder to blow a car’s gas tank up than you see in movies…but it was that burning fuel, like napalm, that really worried me. And it was so close to that propane tank. If the truck had blown, it would’ve knocked the tank off its moorings, which could have easily ruptured it, sending a jet of propane out…and that would have been Boom City for yours truly.
If I had any self-preservation skills, I would’ve jumped in the van and rolled when I realized how big the boom might actually get. But, shit, the dude asked me to help him. I thought maybe somebody was in there. And I didn’t want the whole goddamn intersection to go supernova.
I mean, who knows what would’ve happened if I hadn’t stopped to help? There were people standing around — customers at the AM/PM tanks, attendants — but none of them came anywhere near the truck or helped the driver, except the dude who grabbed the fire extinguisher. And the driver was totally useless — the entire time, he never seemed to understand the danger he was in.
Even if I didn’t put the fire out, maybe I stopped it from just burning and burning until the tank went up. So maybe I saved that poor dumb dude’s life.
But I’m very glad I didn’t end up roasted. I’m looking forward to 2008, you know?