March 6, 1998, would begin as most any other day. Jon Pysh, a licensed auto-technician at a Chrysler dealership in Richmond, BC. would leave for work as usual that morning, never imagining the horror that was about to unfold. Sandy, Jon’s wife, was seven months pregnant with their third child and would remain at home with their two boys, never imagining that just a few hours later, she would receive a phone call – and their family would be changed forever.
At the dealership, Julie Stene was working at the rental clerk’s desk, next to the service writer’s counter. She was also the dealership’s First Aid Attendant.
The 1996 Dodge Caravan had been towed to the dealership because of a leaking fuel tank. It was backed into Jon’s work – bay. A series of diagnostic steps quickly revealed that the in-tank fuel pump had failed. The fuel tank was full of gasoline, and Jon’s first task was to remove the fuel from the tank.
A janitor was busy mopping the shop floor with a wet mop, a short distance from where Jon was working. A turned-on trouble-light was hanging up near-by. Jon was now working with his back to a concrete wall, a car on a hoist to his right, and another car sitting in the bay to his left.
With the transmission jack positioned under the plastic fuel tank, Jon and an assistant began the task of lowering the fuel tank; just enough so as to disconnect the fuel filler tube and then insert a hose to drain the fuel from the tank. The next step would then be to continue removing the fuel tank to complete the job of replacing the defective fuel pump. The shop did not have a fuel-tank adapter for the transmission jack. Fuel couldn’t be removed from the filler neck because of the anti-siphoning check ball at the bottom of the filler tube.
Julie Stene relates what happened next: “I was working at the vehicle rental counter, when a lube technician burst suddenly into the area and was panicking trying to dial the phone to call 911. ‘Jon! Rory! Fire! Shop!’ He was shaking so badly, he could hardly speak. As I turned towards the shop, I could see through the window that it was filled with dense smoke. The fire was burning at the far end of the shop. I then followed the lube technician back through the door into the shop area. There was confusion and screaming from everyone and several of the staff were trying to douse the fire with the shop’s fire extinguishers. I could hear the sirens approaching.”
Jon stood outside the shop with Rory, another technician who was also injured. Rory sustained second-degree burns to his right arm. They were standing outside the shop, being hosed-down by a car-wash hose (nozzle).
“I was shocked by what I saw”, says Stene. “The skin from both his arms, was hanging from his fingertips. He also suffered burns on his chest area. He was in shock and was confused. I remember the total fear in his eyes and his facial expression. His coveralls had been ripped open by his co-workers, as they had helped to put the fire out. I quickly assessed his breathing and then ran to the first-aid room, grabbed 6 – 8 bottles of saline solution and an oxygen bottle, bandages, etc., and returned to Jon. As I was attending to Jon, the paramedics arrived and soon transported Jon and Rory to the hospital. A day does not go by that I don’t think of what happened, and to this day, I can picture in my mind’s-eye, the horrible sight that I witnessed.”
Jon Pysh picks up the story: “It was a really warm March, and that day, in particular, was dry and sunny. I had made enough flat-rate hours that week, so I didn’t need to work that Friday. This job was the last one for me for the day, as there was no other worked scheduled to arrive. I thought to myself, and was secretly hoping, that there wasn’t a new fuel tank in stock, since I didn’t feel like getting dirty, and wanted to return home to enjoy the weekend with my family. But, as was always with me, I did anything and everything possible to make the jobs go out the door.” Jon describes the problem: “The 1996 Dodge Caravan has a common problem with the fuel tank. The tank leaks fuel only when the tank is full and the contents (fuel) is warm. What then happens, is the fuel ‘fumes’ in the tank, and causes the seal around the in-tank fuel pump module to loosen and leak. We would replace the tanks, because the big locking nut was made out of plastic and could not be tightened enough to seal, since the fuel tank was by now distorted. Chrysler fixed the problem by recalling all the effected fuel tanks, and then would install an updated fuel pump module nut and seal.
Because of the lack of a fuel drain plug, I was required to partially remove the tank, which was full of fuel. This meant, that as soon as the filler pipe was removed, fuel was spilling onto the floor. This procedure was done many times at the dealership…I was NOT the only tech to have problems with this situation. We had a janitor mopping up the spilt fuel as it was running out of the tank, which, I believe, contributed to the gassing of the fumes. The next thing I remember as the fuel was spilling out, was telling Rory (my assistant) that we were taking too long in removing the tank, and that he should kick the pin-jack out from under the tank, and then lower it ourselves. This way we would be able to tip-up the tank and then clean up the spilt fuel.
But before I could get all the words out, and as we kicked the jack out from under the tank…our hands were suddenly on fire and we heard (at the same time) a “popping” sound…We now had a full gas tank in our hands and it was on fire!
So I yelled at Rory not to drop the tank, as I was worried that it would split open, creating an even larger fire. To his credit, Rory tried his best to hold on, but dropped his end of the tank onto the floor. As soon as this happened, fuel splashed onto me and the tank split apart.
I stood within that 1200-degree inferno…watching my life flash before my eyes!
I still remember it, like it happened yesterday…I saw a mini-biography of what had happened in my life, and what I would miss in the future…All in a few milliseconds!
Waking back to reality…the flames under my hoist were taller than me and were swirling about like a small tornado. I remember looking at them and marveling at how they acted and looked…then panic started to set in … no time for thought … the heat … so hot … can’t breath … Something inside me was pushing me to think fast and react. I stopped breathing, and closed my mouth. I don’t know why. I just did it. I put my hands in front of my face to protect it. This action no doubt saved me from having third-degree burns on my face.
Next, I did what would prove to be the smartest thing I could have…I ran towards the wind (which was the opened bay door)! I thought “If I could make it to the fresh air, I would be fine.”
As I was running, the floor was on fire, and with every step, the flames seemed to burn ahead of where I was stepping. My legs were now burning. I stopped after what seemed to be 20 feet or so, and thought, “This is it…I’m not going to get out of here…I can’t make it…” I looked and saw that if I can make just three more massive steps I could make it! …I took those THREE STEPS and was out!
Immediately I was tackled, and mercifully my fellow workers put out the flames that were engulfing me.
I was in the hospital (Vancouver General Hospital) Burn Unit with 18% of my upper body burnt, 10% of which was classified as 3rd-degree burns, to my hands and arms. There were 2nd-degree burns to my left breast, face, neck, and parts of my upper arms. I under-went debriding every day, in which the doctors would scrub the cuts and burns, without putting me to sleep. I was on morphine and Valium, in heavy doses for those three weeks. I was in-and-out of the hospital for the next two years, and was very sick for about three years.
I was involved with this trade since I was 16 years old, and became a licensed technician in 1990. Since the accident, I have not been able to continue as a technician, as the damage to the nerves in my arms, makes it impossible for
me to handle the vibration from the tools (i.e.; air impact tools, etc.) Lifting objects (e.g.; tires, equipment, etc.) causes a lot of pain for me, even to this day. Currently, I am working as a manager of a body shop in Calgary, Alberta.”
Jon’s wife Sandy sums up Jon’s new reality: “Jon is not the same, and never will be as he was before the accident. He can’t do a lot of the things he used to love doing, as the resulting pain he suffers, just isn’t worth the effort. If he does too much, he is in a lot of pain, due to the deep burns and damage that was done to his nerves. He has had to learn, by trial-and-error, what he can and cannot do. It was very draining for me emotionally, and it affected Jon in a HUGE way emotionally. Jon still suffers from post-traumatic-stress-syndrome. He had nightmares for years after the accident.”
What happened to them, could easily happen to anyone. This trade, like other trades, has its level of dangers that cannot be ignored. As auto-technicians, we cannot (indeed should not) underestimate the effect that an accident has on our loved ones. It is my hope, that this story of what happened to Jon and Sandy (including their children), will make us all stop and think seriously, even if for just a moment…because your life could be changed forever…