Author(s): Casey Grant. Published on September 1, 2017.

‘A long rope-like finger of flame’

An NFPA staff member recalls an international flame-jetting incident from 20 years ago


In 1997, Casey Grant, now executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation, was traveling in Asia as part of his responsibilities as NFPA assistant chief engineer. At the close of his trip, he attended a reception held as part of a fire-industry event. Grant composed a memo to George Miller, then NFPA’s president, on what transpired at the reception. Excerpts from the memo appear below.

I am writing this memo on the flight [home]. Once again I find myself wide awake under the night-time sky during this trip. I thought it best to sum up the closing activity while it is still fresh in my mind.

A solid crowd was present, and it was festive with plenty of healthy dialogue and interaction. The event was outdoors, with large tents used for the cultural show and a casual buffet style food arrangement. It was comfortable despite a somewhat Spartan setting based on the organizer's best efforts.

John O'Sullivan [an NFPA member with British Airways] and I were in the crowd discussing several Standards Council-related items, standing next to a large outdoor square-walled fireplace with my bag sitting on the fireplace wall. One of the attendants fortunately had the sense to ask us to move (though I'm not sure he would have if my bag was not on the wall) so that they could light a large pile of logs in the fireplace. John and I moved about 20 feet to the side and, while we continued our discussion, watched one of the attendants light a small fire under the logs to get it started. Another attendant came forward carrying a large-handled, wide-mouthed metal jug that looked like a big milk container used on farms, and preceded to pour something on the logs.

I later learned it was naphtha in the container. The attendant poured it on the logs, already with a small fire underneath them, to try and accelerate the flames. Needless to say, he achieved his purpose and more. A flame front traveled immediately up from the small fire and into the opening of the container. With a loud and violent whoosh, a stream of fire violently shot out of the jug into the sky over the crowd.

The burning liquid projected up and outward in about a 30-foot arc. It uncoiled as a long rope-like finger of flame, guided by the shape of the container opening. The fire rained down on the crowd as a contiguous and fluid string of burning liquid. Miraculously, the fire stream traced a path that just missed several small clusters of people. The path included the precise spot where John and I had been standing perhaps 20 to 30 seconds earlier.

The end of this rope-of-fire, however, scored a direct hit on three men in the crowd, who were instantly doused in flames. One man was facing the fireplace and was furthest away from it, and had flames on the arms of his jacket. He quickly took it off and dropped it to the ground without any apparent harm. The second man had his back to the fireplace, and he had flames from his belt-line upward on his entire backside, including on his head and in his hair. The third man was clearly the worst off, with flames on his backside the entire length of his body. These two were caught completely by surprise. In the rapidity of the sequence, there was a distinguishable pause as the men momentarily stood there, apparently coming to the realization that they were on fire.

Others nearby immediately tried to assist. The man with the flames from the waist up had his jacket peeled off by others, which helped considerably, but flames continued burning around his collar-line and in his scalp. Several others had taken off their jackets and were using them to beat and smother the flames, but the fire in his scalp refused to go out and kept relighting like a trick birthday candle. He stood still throughout, either in shock or by some amazing fortitude, while others worked to extinguish him.

The third man went to the ground behind a wall of people who were trying to help him, but the flames fed on the liquid in his clothing and would not easily go out. He then forced his way up, started running, and dashed wildly maybe 40 to 50 feet before being brought down.

While John and I witnessed this at close quarters, most of the others in attendance simply heard the "whoosh" with what appeared to be some type of a fireworks display, but did not initially have a clear view of the results and were not sure what all the excitement was about. This changed suddenly for many, as they witnessed the sight of a man, on fire from head to toe, running through the crowd. Like the other two men, the removal of his jacket also helped immensely, and eventually the flames on his clothes were put out.

We did not see where they brought these two individuals, or how bad they were hurt. We could only assume that they sustained some manner of burn injury. They both walked out on their own power with no distinguishable signs of injury despite their ordeal. No ambulances ever came, at least that we saw. This was obviously an awkward and embarrassing occurrence, and questions to the hosts were not appropriate.

Yet this incident was certainly a topic of discussion among visitors for quite some time. First, it was fortunate more people weren't hit by the flames, and further, of the three who were hit, they did not receive it directly in the face. Additionally, it could have been worse if it had been women who were hit, with more hair and with clothing that is more difficult to get off. And no foreign visitors were involved, which would have certainly created a more complicated logistical situation, as well as a much greater depth of embarrassment for our hosts.

This was one of the more memorable closing conference events I've ever been to, but of course for entirely the wrong reason. We all counted our blessings that things were not much worse.

CASEY GRANT is executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.