Guest Commentary

Guest Commentary

John Freivalds

The Choices We Make Are the Chances We Take

We spend most of our lives on cruise control, not thinking about the inherent dangers of everyday life. That mentality led to a terrible accident that almost took my life a little more than two years ago.

My injuries resulted from not treating gasoline (and its vapors) with respect. I ended up with burns on 65% of my body, and spent many months in the hospital recovering. The journey included two operations and months in rehab. While in the burn unit at the University of Virginia Medical Center, I vowed to speak about what happened to me with hopes that someone would think before getting into trouble like I did.

We think about and plan for potential hazards daily by fastening seat belts in cars and airplanes and wearing life preservers on boats. But, when it comes to day-to-day living, we don’t realize the possible dangers of our actions. A safety engineer who was in rehab with me said, “The choices we make are the chances we take.”

Brush with fire.

My accident was a confluence of circumstance. We had a wet spring, and I wanted to burn a brush pile. I lit the top of the pile, which was on a lengthy downslope, with newspapers. Then, I went to the bottom of the slope, about 150′ away, with a mostly empty gas can to light the bottom. The can was my worst enemy because, though nearly empty, it was full of vapors. As I poured out the remaining gas, the vapors also left. The fire lit the vapors and came back to ignite the gas, which exploded the gas can. I had unwillingly made myself a Molotov cocktail. I suffered what my plastic surgeon called a “flash burn.” The slope of the hill made a huge difference. Later in my hospital bed, I watched a television show about forest fires. In it, the commentator said it takes a brush pile 12 minutes to burn 100′ in flat terrain. Elevate the pile at a 30 [Degrees] angle and it takes 12 seconds!

A helicopter flew me 60 miles from our house to Charlottesville, Va. I woke up three weeks later. The helicopter nurse told a friend I was the only burn victim he had seen with more than 50% burns who lived past 48 hours. When I woke from a drug-induced coma, my plastic surgeon asked, “Don’t you know it’s the fumes?”

Common power sources.

We put gasoline in our cars every day without knowing the true power of gasoline. I still see people smoking, keeping the motor running or talking on their cell phones while filling their gas tank. All of these are no-no’s. Anything can ignite gasoline vapors, including static electricity from a cell phone.

In rehab, there were other horror stories. A woman went to get gas for her friend. She went to a gas station, filled a 2-gal. can and left the top open. Some spilled in her trunk. She emptied the can into her friend’s car and drove away. She lit a cigarette and congratulated herself for being a Good Samaritan. The cigarette ignited the vapors and the car exploded.

There aren’t just burn stories from rehab. How about the woman who, in her high heels, climbed on a chair with wheels to change a light bulb and fell? Or, the fellow on the rickety ladder reaching for an apple when he slipped and broke his spine? Lastly, the young man who took a shortcut on a train trestle, fell through and will never walk again. Spectacular skydiving and horse jumping accidents make the news, but it’s the everyday accidents that keep rehab centers open.

The American way.

My rehab-safety-engineer friend said the problem is that we are all doers. Americans are “doing” people-we don’t wait for the maintenance guy or take the safer route; we try to fix the problem right away. We only think about the task at hand and don’t concentrate on how we are going to do the job. The consequent dangers have the possibility of permanently changing your life in a way you hadn’t planned on.

All the other accidents I came across in the burn unit and in rehab involved the same sort of convoluted circumstance followed by one flawed, non-thinking decision. It takes just a second to cause death or serious injury.

This is a matter of personal responsibility. So, the next time you try to get the combine unstuck at three in the morning without turning it off, consider the risk of joining the subculture of broken and burned bodies that I am part of. It broke my heart when my roommate with a severed spine looked at me doing my painful, yet rewarding, leg exercises and wistfully said, “I wish I could do that.”

John Freivalds runs a communications firm from a farm in Virginia. His accident taught him not to rush through life. E-mail him at

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