So my car exploded last month.
I still have no answers on why this happened. I left work late as usual. It was cold — red-cheek, Ohio-January cold — so I had driven to work, even though I live just a few blocks away. But when I turned the ignition on our old Buick, instead of the usual hesitant sputter of life there was a popping noise and a jolt like a brick had landed on the front of my car. In fact, I looked out over the hood expecting to see a dent. Instead I was suddenly seeing nothing but smoke.
I jumped out of the car for a look. Just as I was noticing a strange glow from the bottom of the vehicle, a student walked by and confirmed what my brain was already piecing together.
“Uh… I think your car’s on fire.”
And so it was. A combination of shock and disbelief overcame me momentarily and I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I kick snow on the fire and try to put it out? Should I pop the hood? Call campus security? Run into a building and look for a fire extinguisher? Duck and cover? Time slowed down and no answers came, only more smoke. I remember seeing another student walk across the parking lot out of the corner of my eye, so I know it was less than a minute, but it seemed much longer, as if my brain synapses were choked with smoke too. I temporarily had no idea how to use my phone and completely forgot the number for campus security (5555–real hard!). Eventually my fingers stumbled across 9-1-1 on my phone and life went back to normal speed.
After telling the emergency operator what had happened and where I was, I reiterated where I was with sudden realization – I was on a college campus between three student dormitories, standing next to what was once one of the biggest cars on the road today – a Buick LeSabre. It was no longer a car though. It was now 3,500 pounds of potential shrapnel wrapped around 18 gallons of highly explosive gasoline. Between three student dormitories.
As the fire grew, I had gradually put more and more distance between myself and the blazing metal. Partly because I was embarrassed. Mostly because I fully expected it to explode any minute like a Bruce Willis movie scene.
This possibility didn’t stop the crowd of students that began to gather. Neither did the smoke which became increasingly foul as the fire consumed plastic, paint, rubber, and wiring like items on an all-you-can-eat buffet. Miniature firestorms began to flare up along the hood as tongues of fire sampled a smorgasbord of flammable automotive fluids. By the time the fire truck arrived, the front end of the car had gone from Buick to bonfire.
The fire men calmly looked the car over, unraveled the hose, and put the fire out in a few short minutes. There was a brief round of applause for their efforts. My poor car smoldered into the university air as the fireman hit it with one final blast of flame retardant foam.
“So what happened?” This question was posed to me in turn by the campus security guards, the firemen, the young and chipper school newspaper reporters, and later by friends, family members, insurance agents.
I had no serious answers for any of them. “ISIL?” I suggested weakly.
The college newspaper reported the fire was under investigation. But no one ever offered any answers on why this might have happened.
The next day my poor car sat in ruin in the parking lot, hood tented up in a sad upside down V, tires half melted to the blacktop lot. The bent hood reminded me of an apologetic shrug.
And I guess a shrug is the best commentary on the situation. It was an old car with more than 100,000 miles on it. We had full coverage, no one was hurt, and the school newspaper got an exciting photo op. The only real casualty was a Bruce Springsteen cd that was trapped in the player (“oh-woh-woh, I’m on fire…”) There’s the weekends we’ll spend finding a replacement, but that was going to happen eventually.
All the same, I found myself pacing around the living room later, trying to conjure up a way to present this bit of bad news to my husband. Once again, answers eluded me.
“How am I going to tell your dad about this?” I asked my 13-year-old daughter. “Maybe I could say, ‘Good news – I just cut our car maintenance bills in half’!”
“How about ‘Good news, I’m alive’,” my daughter answered. Which made me glad I’ve invested more attention and money in my kids than in my cars.
It also made me wish I was 13 again. I had all the right answers then too.
* Photo at the top of the page is from the Ashland University Collegian. See their coverage here.