ENTRAPMENT POSES FIRE AND INJURY HAZARD

BY THOMAS F. KENNEY

The Hyannis (MA) Fire department received a 911 call from a clerk at a gas and convenience store reporting “a man with his finger stuck in the gas fill pipe of his car.” The clerk had observed this individual at the self-serve island waving for assistance and found that he had his finger wedged in the opening to the gasoline fill pipe of his automobile.

The crew on the arriving apparatus observed a man standing beside his 1995 Ford Mustang parked adjacent to the service island with his left hand at the fill door. On closer examination, it was determined that for reasons unknown, this 33-year-old man had stuck the middle finger of his left hand into the open fill pipe after filling the tank with gasoline. The now-trapped man was alert and without any pain as long as the finger was not manipulated. He had been making numerous attempts to free himself including pulling and twisting the finger in the opening. Although visibility was somewhat limited with his hand and wrist taking up the fill pipe compartment, we could see the finger in the fill pipe and that it was extended through the opening for the gas pump nozzle. We thought that the metal tang that acts as a self-closing flap for the gas pump nozzle opening may have been holding his finger from the side in opposition to the direction in which he was pulling (photo 1).


(1) This is the actual end of the fill pipe into which the man had put his finger and how the finger appeared to rescuers after the pipe was cut and removed from the car. The smaller-diameter pipe within the fill pipe is the opening for the gas pump nozzle, which included the flap that had entrapped the victim’s finger. Note the gas pump nozzle flap is in the closed position. The shiny edge of the flap is where rescuers grasped the flap with needle-nose pliers to release the victim’s finger. (Photos by Meaghann Kenney.)

Our initial rescue plan was to slide flat plastic rods past the hand, adjacent to the finger and into the fill pipe, so as to push down the flap. It was thought that this would allow the finger to be released. As an added measure, we lubricated the finger and fill pipe opening with aerosol cooking spray. With just enough room to get the flat rods past the hand and into the fill pipe, we slid them in and applied pressure to the flap. This caused the victim pain, and he let us know about it. The resistance felt as we pushed against the flap was not what we expected.

In attempting to reposition the hand to try it again, we found that the victim could not turn his finger in the opening. It appeared that something inside the fill pipe had the fingertip, and it was below the level at which we could see inside the fill pipe. In addition, the victim spoke very little English and couldn’t accurately describe the position of the end of his finger.

After additional attempts at pushing the flap resulted only in more pain for the victim, we moved to Plan B: cut the fill pipe past where the finger was stuck and remove that section from the automobile. This would allow us to view the finger from the end below the fingertip and to free whatever was holding it.

The fill pipe on the 1995 Ford Mustang runs from the right rear fender, through the floor of the trunk, into the wheel well, and then into the gas tank. Behind the gas cap door, the fill pipe is set in a molded plastic box that lines the area behind the door. The fill pipe had a flange that is secured in the plastic box with screws. We took a close look at all components and determined what had to be cut and which of the many cutting options the rescue carries would be usable. Knowing the vehicle’s gas tank was full and that this victim was attached to it increased the concern for safety issues for the victim and the rescuers.

After establishing command and radioing a report of the situation, we requested an engine company for fire protection and the police for traffic control. It seemed that everyone needed to be at this store at the same time as we were trying to effect the rescue. The arriving engine strategically blocked the driveway opposite the rescue scene, then stretched and charged a preconnected 1 3/4-inch handline.

We discussed the rescue plan and made assignments. The victim was wrapped in flash blankets, and 20-pound dry chemical extinguishers were placed nearby. We explained to the victim what we were about to do; although he did not speak English well, the blankets, fire extinguishers, and charged line indicated to him, “I am in big trouble.”

First, we cut the fill pipe. A firefighter leaned into the trunk and used a battery-operated reciprocating saw equipped with a new metal-cutting blade. He easily severed the thin-walled metal fill pipe-cutting intermittently to reduce the heat and sparks produced. Next, some of the plastic box was cut from within the trunk using a utility knife. Since the victim’s hand filled most of the molded plastic box, some areas could not be cut with the utility knife for fear of injuring the victim’s hand. The rest of the plastic box cuts were made from outside the car with a pneumatic reciprocating saw. This narrow-body saw fit in and around his hand and easily cut the plastic. A variable speed allowed for close-in cutting and victim safety.

The final operation involved the machine screws that held the flange to the plastic box. They were accessible from the gas-cap door side and were removed with a nut driver. When we manipulated the now-cut fill pipe to free the victim, we dislodged a rubber bushing on the end of the pipe where it entered the gas tank. This resulted in the unplanned spill of a few gallons of gasoline onto the ground as we moved the victim away from the car. The engine company mitigated the spill and secured the vehicle.

The victim was now disconnected from the automobile, but he still wore the short section of fill pipe on his hand, and the full scope of the problem was evident. The middle finger was not only through the gas pump nozzle opening, but it was also turned 90 degrees at the knuckle and was through the hinge. It was being held in place with a band of metal that was over his fingernail and digging into it. We inserted two pairs of needle-nose pliers into the fill pipe, grabbed the flap, and lifted it while the victim slid his finger out from underneath the flap and then out of the fill pipe opening.

Our paramedics examined the finger and found only superficial lacerations, abrasions, and a scraped fingernail. The now relieved, embarrassed victim refused transport to the hospital.

LESSONS LEARNED

  • Apparatus positioning was key. The store was still open, and the gas pumps were still operating at the surrounding islands until our arrival. Traffic was still coming into the parking lot until it was blocked off by apparatus and police. Also, the victim’s frantic girlfriend arrived with squealing tires, close enough to our operation so that the police issued her a citation.
  • The right tool for the right job. Thin-wall two-inch pipe is no match for many of the tools a rescue company carries. Rotary saws, reciprocating saws, pneumatics, electrics, hydraulics, abrasives, hacksaws, and tubing cutters all have a place in our operations. When choosing tools, consider the environment in which the rescue is being conducted: the proximity of the victim, the time needed to conduct the operation, the victim’s status, and the risk/benefit. In retrospect, the operation might have been made more safer by using a different tool to cut the fill pipe, such as the hydraulic cutter, which would have reduced the heat and sparks produced. However, the cutter also would have crimped the end of the fill pipe, which would have had to be uncrimped to access the victim’s finger. Mastering the operation and application of tools of rescue will result in successful operations (photo 2).
  • Safety. All of our responders were in all of their gear all of the time. This simple run turned into a 45-minute technical rescue situation with significant potential for fire and injury. Firefighters should upgrade their level of protection as the incident progresses without being told. This is a behavior learned from practice and example and contributes to successful rescues.


(2) Common rescue tools used in the operation included a battery-powered reciprocating saw, an air reciprocating saw, and hand tools.

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THOMAS F. KENNEY is a lieutenant with the Hyannis (MA) Fire Department, with which he has served 25 years. He is a rescue squad officer and SCT instructor with DHS FEMA and Massachusetts USAR Task Force 1. Kenney is a H.O.T. instructor for FDIC and a partner in Heavy Rescue Incorporated, a fire service training company.

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