ATF studies fire phenomenon that a burned Baltimore County teenager

'Flame jetting' can severely injure or kill

On a cold December night just before the 2011 New Year, a burst of flames is quite literally the last thing Aubrey Clark saw; the last second before the surreal became very real.

"She threw the gasoline on.  Before that we all screamed no and I backed up and...it hit me," Clark said.

It all went dark after that she says.

A simple back yard fire pit in Rosedale last winter would alter the teen's life; quite literally in the wrong place at the exact wrong time, standing back but directly across from the girl who poured the gas onto the fire.

Aubrey's mother still remembers the knock at the door that night.

"It started to click when they said Bayview and I knew Bayview is the burn center and then it all started clicking, bon fire and I knew that it was serious," Tonia Clark said.

The Clark's were told that night that Aubrey would lose her lips, eyelids, ears and even her hands.

30 percent of her body was badly burned.

It was mortifying news for the Middle River family putting them in crisis mode, and their faith in the doctors at Bayview.

"I remember saying to the doctor, let me see your hands.  He said, ‘why do you want to see my hands?' And I looked at his hands and said they look like good hands to me.  So I put my trust in those doctors," Tonia said.

And after 19 surgeries, skin grafting and intense physical therapy Aubrey is on her way back; back with her friends, back to hanging out...back to texting.

It was a grueling year for the Clarks, one they never want any other family to have to endure.

"A year of our life is gone and it will continue probably for another year or two and I don't ever want to go through this again and I don't want another family to have to go through this."      

So Aubrey's parents started to focus on how it happened. 

Her mother Tonia employed by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, her father Al a volunteer Baltimore County firefighter, neither understood how the gas can that night turned into a blowtorch. 

Because the gas can didn't simply explode as has been documented can happen, it turned into a deadly weapon spewing fire several feet hitting the teen as she backed away.

"We had no data on it, no information so we recreated the event and actually went through and tested this phenomenon."

Adam St. John is a fire protection engineer with ATF.

Two years ago the Bureau was asked to investigate this blowtorch phenomenon as part of a criminal case in Michigan.

It found that it not only can happen, but does.

"So we documented it using high speed cameras, thermal imaging cameras and we look at it from a science basis and an engineering basis to understand exactly what's happening.  With no information out there we had to do the test ourselves to see if this could actually happen," St. John said.


View Multiple angles of ATF's Flame-Jetting demonstration

As you look at the footage, you can see that with the nozzle off and just the right amount of weathered gasoline in the can, flames follow the fumes up and into the mostly empty can then violently combust spewing flames like a fire breathing dragon up to 13 feet.

It was a test St. John recreated for the Clarks in the ATF laboratory in Beltsville so they can see for themselves what happened to Aubrey that night.

The results of which ATF says is making more sense to fire and police departments all around the country.

"So we've been presenting this because nobody really knows about it across the country and the more we do that, the more people step forward and say hey this happened in our jurisdiction.  We thought it was just an isolated incident but maybe it's not at this point," St. John said.

"Seeing it is believing for me, I mean I believe what Aubrey said but it is unbelievable.  She said she backed up and she showed us how far she backed up.  For me it is hard to picture a fire shooting that far," said Tonia.

Hard to picture until they actually saw it recreated.

A phenomenon so new, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission is just beginning to look into this danger.

One the Clark family knows all too well is very real; a phenomenon they hope their story convinces others can and does happen.

"If we can save one life or to prevent this from ever happening to another family, it changes your whole world.  Not only is the survivor is burned, but the whole family gets burned as well," Tonia said.

Since the accident in December 2011, Aubrey is making a strong recovery and is moving past what happened to her.

She

is about to go back to college and has been speaking on fire safety at various events.

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