IT HAPPENED ON THE Monday ofter Thanksgiving, when it snowed and schools opened late in Fairfax, and children were happy and raced outside to throw snowballs. Across the street, Alan Barjansky came outside and took pictures of the snow, the first snow of a warm winter, and then he went to school.
There still was snow on the ground that night when I got home from work, despite the light drizzle, and the pavement glistened under the streetlight, I drove down the street and noticed a blue truck parked by our house. It was the Fairfax police mobile crime unit. Three neighborhood kids were standing nearby, watching Alan's house, which was filled with light. The kids didn't know what was going on. There had been an accident. At least, that's what a policeman told them. One of the youngsters said Alan's mother had rushed from the house, into the night crying, "My son, my son." A friend had helped her back into the houyse and then came the rescue squad and then the police, and now the rescue squad had left.
We went inside our house and waited, and kept the children form going to the windows and watching. We speculated about breakins, hoping that it was nothing worse than that. We called a next-door neighbor, but she was across the street with another neighbor. The mobile crime unit stayed into the night and the longer the police remained, the more certain we became that something terribly final had happened, something in which speed and quick action were no longer important.
We talked of Alan's mother, Tani, a beautiful, elegant Frenchwoman, who seemed to vulnerable, and we wondered if she was all right and we knew, of coursem that she was not. The stillness finally ended with the sound of a truck. It was the rescue squad coming back and whatever hope we had was gone. The men carried a stretcher into the house, and I took the children away from the window. We knew, then, what had happened. We knew that Alan Barjansky was dead.
Alan was found with a plastic bag over his head and the bag was securd by an electric cord wrapped around his neck. He was wearing gogles. Inside the plastic bag was an aerosol can of Wonder Mist, a glass-cleaning product. It was Tani who found her son when she came home from work. That night, at a neighbor's, she would say she had nothing left to live for.
Alan Barjansky was 19 years old. He was the only son of Tani and Michael Barjansky, a retired American diplomat, a kindly and scholarly man. Alan was a nice looking young man, with wavy, brown hair, and a ready smile. He had charm. He was polite. He was, in other words, the kind of teen-ager that adults like and enjoy. He was a student at McLean High School, but he did not hang out any particular group of friends. "He was a sunny child, with no malice," says his father. "He was not an overachiever. He was not ambitious. He was happy. There were not tensions in Alan. He was completely at peace with the world I think he said to himself, these kids keep talking about it, well, I'll show them I can do it, too, or find out what's so marvelous about this thing."
Police and the corner have listed Alan's death as accidental poisoning from Trichlorethane, a solvent used in the cleaning product. It is a verdict that came three weeks after the death, becayse lab tests on chemicals take weeks, and it is a verdict that puts to rest the awful thought that has hounded his parents, the thought that he might have committed suicide. Police investigator Colin Kozloff is convicnced it was in an accident, that Alan was a novice drug use. Kozloff interview Alan's best friend who told him that he never knew Alan to smoke marijuana or experiment with any drugs. "He [the friend] had no reason to lie because the boy was dead," say Kozloff "I asked him to tell us the truth so when we did the toxicology report we'd know what to look for." A search of Alan's room turned up no drugs, "which is another thing that would indicate he was a novice at this," say Kozloff.
Kozloff has seen other teen-agers who have died from trying to get high off aerosol fumes, kids who stick their heads in plastic bags and tie a rope round their necks with a slip knot that doesn't slip.
"They put a mask over their eyes so it doesn't hurt their eyes. When you see that, you know it was nothing intentional. Most of the products they use give them a high. They become semiconscious and then unconscious. If they fall down and the bags falls off their head, and thay have an opportunity to get some fresh air, they revive. A lot of times they don't," says Kozloff.
"The stories spread in school. My own personal opinion is that a lot of kids who are inexperienced relate these stories to show they're with the 'in' group. They've never really tried it.And then you get someone else who comes along and hears the stories and who tries it and they end up dead."
The Consumer Product Safety Commission knows of 343 deaths related to aerosol containers as of October 1977, including 183 that occurred between 1975 and October 1977. The commission doesn't get death certificates from all the states, so the numbers are even higher. The commission encourages manufacturers to use cautionary labeling, but it is up to them. Trichlorethane is not a hazardous substance under the law. It is only when it is misused. "We have no authority over intentional misuse," says a commission official.
Wonder Mist, like many other glass cleaning products, carries the warning in the caution box. "Intentional misuse by deliberately concentratiing and inhaling the contents can be harmful or fatal." But the labels are in relatively small print, and who reads the caution section on a glass cleaner?
Tani and Michael Barjansky are trying to giving meaning to their son's death. They believe he never would have tried the experiment if he had known how dangerous it was. They want other teen-agers to know what happened and they want other parents to spared their grief. They want other families to realize that the aerosol cans under the kitchen sink can become loaded guns.
Michael barjansky believes that a label with a skull and crossbones and the word poison would have made Alan think twice. He suggests that stores sell stick-on labels warning consumers that household products they are purchasing can be dangerous. "If you put poison on it, it shows that you know it's dangerous and you want to warn people, for heaven's sake, look out. But when you put in small print this insidious warning, it shows you know exactly how it is being musued."
We can argue that a more alarming warning label won't deter a teen-ager bent on getting high. Maybe so. But we know hundreds of people have died from misuse of these containers and they are still dying so we can conclude, at least, that the warnings and publicity so far have not been enough. Bigger scarier labels certainly can't do any harm. Maybe the kids who know the drug scene are savvy enough to stay away from aerosol cans, but Alan Barjansky was not. He was an innocent, says his father.
Michael Barjansky did something most of us could not do. He spoke at the graveside, before the casket was lowered into the ground. He talked about his son, what a happy person he was, and how much he was loved by his family. "He was a child that never brought us anything but joy and happiness. He was a boy without malice, without guile, without cunning. He was a lovely human being. He loved people so much and liked to be loved by them. We spoiled him terribly. Thank Be loved by them. We spoiled him terribly. Thank God we did."