A few nights ago, as I was checking through the minutiae of the day's local coverage, I aroused the curiosity of the late man on the city desk.
"What are you doing out here at this hour?" Gene Bachinski asked. "Surely you're not still looking for a topic?"
"I'm finished writing," I said. "I'm just too tired to go home. Did you see this story about the cop whose car exploded and burned while thieves were trying to siphon gasoline out of his tank?"
Bachinski said, "Yeah. What about it?"
"Did you notice the paragraph that said investigators found a gas can, a rubber hose and a book of matches at the scene?"
Bachinski sighed, "During the last gasoline shortage, 1974 or whenever it was, I was on night police. I remember a story about gas thieves who siphoned gas from a tank and then lit a match to make sure they had gotten all of it. Blooie!"
"What blew up, the drained gas?"
No, the vapor in the tank. People have been warned a million times that it is the vapor that explodes; an empty tank can just as dangerous as a full one. But somehow the message never reaches some people."
Obviously, Gene was not talking about District Line readers, who are alert and intelligent. All regular District Liners know that gasoline is a flammable, combustible and highly dangerous liquid that mut be handled with extreme care.
What follows is therefore not aimed at educating the educated, but rather at reaching a few new readers.
The newcomer may be somebody who is trapped in a barber chair, or a bored patient who has been staring at the ceiling of a doctor's waiting room for a long time. People in such predicaments sometimes begin reading anything that's handy, even this column or the list of ingredients on a can of soup.
If you think I am a frightened old woman who is overstating the dangers of gasoline, I suggest that you call Battalion Fire Chief Richard M. Hubscher of the D.C. Fire Department. His phone number is 745-2331. Ask him.
This veteran firefighter will explain that the storage and handling of gasoline is extremely dangerous because a spark or other minor source of ignition that might otherwise be harmless can cause gasoline's flammable vapors to explode.
Once that happens, gasoline will burn very rapidly at first, then later at a rate approching that for kerosene.
Almost all flammable liquids produce heavier-than-air vapors that tend to settle on the floor, or in pits and depressions. Such vapors may flow along the floor or ground for long distances. Even when ignited at some distant point, they can flash back to the main source of the liquid. The results can be disastrous.
Note this exception to the general rule: Convection currents of heated air sometimes carry even heavier-than-air vapors upward. Insuch instances, ceiling ventilation becomes necessary to disperse the explosive vapors.
Is there evidence of a significant amount of gasoline hoarding? There is. Chief Hubscher says it is going on all over the country. "We have already learned of three deaths attributed to the home storage of gasoline," he says.
The law in the District of Columbia permits the storage of not more than one gallon of gasoline in an inhabited dwelling, and then only if the fuel is kept in an approved safety can. "That's the power mower law," Hubscher comments. "People are going to keep a little gasoline around the house for their mowers regardless of how much we tell them it's dangerous, but if I had my way there would be no gasoline whatever permitted inside a place where people live. I am strongly opposed to the practice.
"Gasoline stored in cans, bottles, buckets and pails can be a killer. Storing it in your house is like storing a bomb there. Please don't do it. Don't risk your life."
All handling and dispensing of flammable liquids should be done in a well ventilated area that is free of ignition sources. "Bonding should be provided between the dispensing equipment and the container being filled."
What is a "safety can" or "approved container"? Generally speaking, it is sturdily made to minimize the danger of leakage or rupture; it has a pouring outlet that reduces interaction of liquid and air; it has a tight-fitting cap or a value that is kept closed by springs except when held open by hand; and it has an "emergency vent" that diminishes the likelihood of container rupture under fire conditions.
Please don't hoard gasoline - not even in safety cans. One gallon can take you all the way to heaven.
P.S.: Remember that "any closed container of strong construction, whether or not it holds a flammable liquid, may, when exposed to a severe fire, rupture with extreme violence."