Filling Up With Fire
Little-Known Danger Could Cause Serious Injuries

Story by

LOS ANGELES -- You go to touch the gas pump nozzle and it explodes in flames: It's happening more than you probably ever realized.

Most people fill up at least once a week. What you do while you wait could mean the difference between the ordinary and severe burns.

Tessa Stewart experienced the danger of static pump fires firsthand. "Basically, I got out and used my credit card like normal...basically like a lot of people do...stuck it in the machine and put the nozzle up like it was going to pump automatically and got back in the car to put the credit card back up and when I scooted out I went to go touch the pump and I never felt anything but it was just like a ball of fire...flying out right here."

Although it's clear they're a hazard, gas fires caused by static electricity are not well-known hazards, and posted warnings about them go largely ignored.

John Biggart said, "I don't think I ever noticed that sign before. I've noticed turn off your smoking obviously."

Mary Willmont told NBC4, "Even in reading this sign I would not think about the carpet the way I would I would in a home. I wouldn't associate that."

Elisabeth Handler tried to pass along an e-mail warning about the danger. Handler said, "Well, I got a lot of people sending e-mails back to me saying, 'No, no, no that doesn't happen. That's an urban myth.'"

According to the Petroleum Equipment Institute, which represents the makers of gas pump equipment, in the last two years more than 150 people have been the victim of static electricity fires while pumping gas and three out of four of those victims are women.

In 2002, people in San Francisco, Wofford Heights, and Lockwood, Calif. have been involved in static electricity gas fires.

NBC4's Chris Schauble explained how most of the fires get started. "Someone puts the nozzle into their gas tank pipe and then re-enters their vehicle. Then they get out without touching the metal part of the door, or the side of the vehicle ... and the first thing they do touch is the nozzle, igniting the gas vapors. To prevent a fire, don't get in and out of your vehicle, and if you must, touch the door or the side, not near the fuel tank area before you touch the nozzle."

Austin Cochrum learned tips like these after he suffered second-degree burns from a static electricity gas fire. He said the wounds would have been worse if he hadn't heard the whoosh of the gas catching fire. "The whoosh is probably what saved my face from being burned. Because I heard the whoosh I was ready to get out of there. I turned around to run and when I turned, that's when I was burned on my left side."

Cochrum is now a believer in the dangers of static electricity at the gas pump. "I had never heard of static electricity. I had never heard of things like that contributing to any fires, anywhere ... let alone at a gas station."

The Petroleum Equipment Institute is leading a nationwide push to put stickers on all gas pumps that warn of the dangers of static electricity. Many gas stations already display such stickers, but it not required by law.

Bob Renkes of the Petroleum Equipment Institute told NBC4 why it's important to educate the public. "You ask a 16-year-old what you shouldn't do as they pull up to the gas pump? They say, 'Well, I'm not supposed to smoke. And I'm supposed to turn off my engine.' And we hope that the third one is 'I don't get back in my car during refueling.'" So far, there have been no deaths reported as a result of fires caused by static electricity.