Thursday’s recall of gel fuel used to light outdoor ceramic firepots came too late for two burn victims from the Quad-Cities.
Gina VanDeWalle of Davenport is in the hospital after a blast shot a fireball straight at her chest when she tried to use her firepot for the first time Sunday.
Gene Othon of Clinton, Iowa, was injured in a similar accident and was released Wednesday after spending a month in the burn unit at University Hospitals, Iowa City.
Both suffered second- and third-degree burns requiring surgery.
VanDeWalle’s burns cover 20 percent of her body.
VanDeWalle told the Quad-City Times in a phone interview Thursday that she was using a firepot she had bought earlier in the day at a cookout at her fiance’s Rock Island home.
A firepot is like a candle without a wick. Instructions said to use gel fuel.
But when her fiance added more gel fuel after the flame had been extinguished, the fuel caused an explosion that severely burned VanDeWalle.
“I’m going to die,” she recalled yelling.
“You’re not going to die,” she said her 16-year-old son, Randy McPhee, told her. “I won’t let you.”
He took off his shirt and wrapped it around his mother, smothering the flames.
In Othon’s Aug. 1 accident in Clinton, another person poured gel fuel into a firepot, believing the fire was extinguished, and a flame reignited inside the ceramic pot, his friend, Wes Unke of Clinton, said.
The flame flashed into the jug and, like a cannon, shot a glob of the thick, flaming fuel 8 feet across a picnic table and onto Othon’s chest, Unke said.
“It engulfed him in a napalm-like flame,” he said.
Unke and another friend seared their hands trying to rip Othon’s burning clothes off his body.
“It’s unbelievable this stuff could be that dangerous,” Unke said.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission was aware of the danger in June when it issued a flash fire hazard warning on pourable gel fuels.
But it wasn’t until this week that nine companies that either manufacture firepots or gel fuel recalled 2 million bottles and jugs of the fuel, the commission announced Thursday. One of those companies was Bird Brain Inc. of Ypsilanti, Mich., the brand of firepot VanDeWalle and Othon used.
Over the past month, several patients have been treated at University Hospitals for injuries related to gel fuel accidents. Dr. Lucy Wibbenmeyer, clinical associate professor of surgery at the hospital, has treated three of the victims.
“These things are just bad news,” Wibbenmeyer said of the gel-fueled firepots. “Frankly, I wouldn’t use them at all, and I would caution anyone from using them until they figure out what’s wrong.”
VanDeWalle is expecting her stay in the burn unit will last three weeks.
She said she hates getting bathed. Each time, a nurse scrubs open blisters and raw skin to prevent infection.
“It’s so painful,” VanDeWalle said. “Four hours later, I can’t get rid of the pain.”
Doctors had a ventilator tube down her throat Sunday night and all day Monday. Today, she’s supposed to get skin grafts on her chest and arms.
“I feel like I’m on fire all the time,” she said.
But despite her voice sounding gravelly during a Thursday afternoon phone interview and the extreme pain of her condition, she made sure to share that her son took the Davenport West High School wrestling team to state this year.
“He saved his mother’s life,” she said. “Another 10 seconds, I could have been dead.”