It was either September or October of 1996 when Pittsburgh was hit with a tropical storm. Usually a hurricane would lose all of its wind strength by the time it hit western Pennsylvania, but this particular storm was moving a little faster than other storms of this magnitude. Rain came down all day, and high winds of 40 to 60 miles per hour accompanied the rain. So with those facts in mind, this story begins, “It was a dark and stormy night….”
On the day of the storm, I worked the 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift at a big box sporting goods store. I didn’t move my car the whole day, and there were about six other guys on my shift that had the same routine that day: Bring your own dinner from home or run across the parking lot to the mall and get something at the food court. Nobody wanted to drive to the local fast-food joints in this storm.
All of us guys were college age, so we weren’t wise enough to know that in hard rain storms, you should run your car on occasion to keep moisture away from the engine (Heating the engine up reduces moisture). Cars of today can experience this problem, but it happened way more often with cars built in 1980’s. Fuel injection engines were a new feature to these vehicles, and my clunky 1983 Oldsmobile still had an old carburetor engine, which was very temperamental.
I clocked out of work a little later than the other guys, so I was surprised to see all of them standing around in the parking lot at 10:15. It was still pouring down rain, and the wind was still whipping sideways as it had when I started my shift. Apparently two of their cars were “flooded out”, meaning they had so much moisture in the engine block the cars wouldn’t start properly. They pushed one car under the overhang at the front entrance of the store and started to work on it. I went to my car to see if it would turn over properly.
My car started fine. I think I had the oldest car and the only one with a carburetor. How that worked out in my favor I’ll never know, but I did know at the time I had to run my engine for ten to twenty minutes before I made my journey home. While I was waiting for my car, my buddy John called me over to his 1987 Honda sedan.
John found out that his car would not kick over as well, so his Honda made three cars having issues with the rain. He opened the hood and he handed me a can of starting fluid that he had in the car. He asked me if I knew where to spray the fluid, and I told him that I had a good idea even though my car had a different engine than his. The plan was to spray the distributor cap in order to get the moisture off of the spark plugs, then try to start the car. At this point John and I are soaked. I am buttoned up in my Nirvana 1990’s grungy green, brown and black flannel, John in his leather college lacrosse jacket.
At least in 1996, starting fluid had diethyl ether in it. I’ll save 2,000 words to this post by simply saying it is a very volatile flammable liquid that is harmful to skin and harmful to breathe. When I sprayed John’s distributor cap the first time I let him know that I was done. He tried to start the car and it cranked, but did not kick over. Over the next five to seven minutes, we repeated this process a few times and we got the same result. We were close to getting the car to start but did not succeed. Growing tired from the work day and becoming ill from standing in the rain for over fifteen minutes, our next move was a sign of our desperation to get out of the weather and home. It almost burned me. Literally.
I can’t remember who came up with the idea, but I know we agreed it was a good idea at the time. I would spray the starting fluid and at the same time John would turn the key and try to start the car. About five seconds after I started spraying, John turned the key.
I remember when I was spraying a fairly large fireball emerged from the distributor cap area and spread over the hoses across the top portion of the engine. I jumped back and I thought I was in trouble for sure. As the fire continued to burn, John jumped out of the driver’s seat frantic and asked me what happened. As I told him I didn’t know, I realized that I had suffered no burns. My flannel was intact as well, and I proceeded to take my flannel off to put the fire out. The fire started to worsen, and I told John to forget about putting the fire out. Being his car and not having to worry about unbuttoning a tight flannel, John whipped off his leather jacket and starting slamming the thing into the fire. Since his jacket was soaked from the rain, the flames went out and his jacket remained intact, but dirty.
I had a flashlight and I started looking under the hood to see if the flames were indeed out. I was checking the hoses that were on fire a few minutes ago, and remarkably they seemed to look normal. Our theory was when I was spraying the starting fluid, the strong winds caused residual amounts to land on any car parts around the distributor cap. When John started the car while I was spraying, vapors from the fluid came in contact with a spark plug via the distributor cap, which caused the fire. Since my spray was probably flying everywhere in the wind, the trail of ether spread to the other areas of the hood that had a coating of fluid on it from the previous attempts to start John’s Honda.
After inspecting everything under John’s hood for several minutes, we couldn’t see any damage. We didn’t smell anything burning, we didn’t see anything burning and the engine looked the same as it did before the fire. Puzzled, John turns to me:
“Should I try it again?”
“Go ahead, see what happens.”
John turns the key, and his Honda started up fine. I was almost sure something was going to start ablaze but nothing bad happened. The car sounded normal with no signs of stalling out. We were stunned. How can this same car that was going up in flames fifteen minutes prior able to run without issue?
Apparently when diethyl ether comes into contact with water during a fire, the fluid will layer on top of water due to its lower density. So the rain water that got on all of the wires, hoses, engine parts and plastic pieces before the fire saved the car. The entire event ended up being a huge surface fire, and when John put out the flames with his lacrosse jacket, the components of his Honda stayed intact thanks to the water all over the parts. The fire created heat, which dried out the moisture under the hood. That’s why John had no problem starting the car after the flames were put out.
John drove home that night, and when I asked him how the car was running over the next few weeks, he said it never ran better! The sludge that caused his car to run sluggish under normal driving conditions was literally smoked out of the Honda. Or more appropriately firebombed out of the Honda. Yikes.