GASOLENE AND ACETYLENE.
It is not surprising that Chief Trickett, of Kansas City, Mo., has started a crusade against the careless and indiscriminate use of gasolene for lighting purposes in that city. A record kept during the past thirteen years shows that there were 1,508 alarms for fires from that source; the property loss was $265,529.21; 221 persons were injured, and fifty-nine died from the effects of burns from gasolene. Since 1893 the number of persons burned to death from fires of other origin was twenty in all. If the number of lives and the amount of property lost in the United States by fires from that source alone during the same period of thirteen years could be set down, the total would be something appalling. The fact is not recognised that gasolene is in many respects more dangerous than gunpowder or other explosives, and that fires resulting from it are harder to control than those from other sources. Because of the presence of oil in the stuff, the flames spread more rapidly, and a stream of water has but little, if any effect upon them. When the firemen arrive, if the (lames have not made any great headway, the best thing that can be done is to smother them out with sand, earth, or ashes. Whether this is understood or not cannot be told. It would seem, however, as if the real danger from the use of gasolene were not appreciated. If the contrary could be predicated of it, then assuredly the careless and reckless manner in which it is used would cease. The extent of this carelessness and recklessness is absolutely criminal, and can arise only from the fact that familiarity with the destructive fluid has bred contempt in the minds of those who habitually employ it for lighting and heating purposes. For neither of these purposes need gasolene be made use of. It is not a necessity, since other kinds of fuel not only safer, but more economical, can be secured nearly everywhere—certainly in all cities. Coal gas is on hand all round, and in many localities natural gas is piped into the houses; and” the records show that wherever either method of cooking has superseded gasolene the number of fires has been greatly reduced, whereas, all over the United States and Canada many of the largest fires and most disastrous explosions have resulted from its use.
In the same way acetylene gas has been a pretty common factor in the way of causing bad fires— some accompanied with loss of life. Since March, 1899, there are records of some ninety acetylene gas explosions, and in 1903 Manager Fiske, of the Underwriters’ Bureau of New England, reiterated his previously expressed conviction that it is dangerous to locate any acetylene machine mside a building, and that this practice should be prohibited.
Acetylene gas constitutes a most subtle danger, as it will explode when exposed to any substance heated to a red glow as readily as when in contact with a flame. Furthermore, it is claimed that as small a proportion as three per cent, of gas with the remainder ordinary air constitutes an explosive compound:
Only the other day an acetylene gas machine at Stratford, Conn., exploded and nearly demolished a church, while it cost the life of the sexton. The machine was installed in a pit about twenty-five feet north of the church. During the evening service, the lights in the church flickered badly, and the acting sexton went out to look at the machine. Shortly after he left the church, a terrific explosion rocked the building, the windows on the north side of the church were broken, and all of the lights went out.
Investigation showed a large hole in the ground where the covered inclosure of the gas machine had been; there was a sickening odor of gas; and the mutilated body of the sexton was found in one corner of the excavation. The machine, it is said, had been giving trouble for some time before the disaster—at best, it was only an experimental affair, and not of an approved type. The church authorities, however, knew this and (possibly because it was offered at bargain-sale rates) secured it at half the cost. There was evidently a leak sufficient to fill the machine pit with an explosive mixture of gas and air. Such acetylene explosions are by no means rare. It was not so long ago that there was one at Fort Lee, immediately opposite Manhattan borough, the results of which were disastrous, and Philadelphia could a tale unfold of a bad explosion in one of its most populous districts. At the same time it is not to be named in the same breath with gasolene as a fire and explosion-producer, its greatest danger lying in the fact that those who push its sale magnify its simplicity in use—“a young child can operate one of our machines” is a favorite method of recommendation employed by the agents of this style of lighting. The risks accompanying the installation of such machines, however, are studiously kept in the background, and thus the acetylene generator in inexperienced hands becomes the agent of destruction and death. It is claimed that the same charges can be brought against electricity, kerosene, and ordinary gas. It is true that the use of these—as of every illuminative and heat-producing agent—is accompanied with a certain amount of risk to life and property. Experience, however, has proved that, while those attendant on two of these illuminants have not been few, their proportionate aggregate of death and loss of property is as nothing to that springing from gasolene or acetylene—even of kerosene. In the case of the last mentioned, the loss of life and destruction of property has always resulted cither from the use of oil considerably below the accepted standard of purity, or from deliberate recklessness on the part of those who were thoroughly well acquainted with the danger accompanying starting fires with it or filling it into catjs in the neighborhood of an exposed light, from which the inflammable vapor thrown off by the oil caught fire and exploded. The accidents from electricity are becoming fewer every year, and, when they do occur, can generally be traced to cheap and inferior workmanship on the part of those who pose as electricians, without having made themselves acquainted with even me the beggarly elements of the science of electricity itself, its modes of operation, or the mechanical methods to be followed in installing wires and the like. As to coal gas: Explosions or fire from its use may he written off as almost non-existent, while in the case of natural gas they are now so few and far between as to render that fluid nearly as negligible a factor as its sister product from coal. To minimise all such dangers a strict system of frequent inspections is necessary, nor should anyone be allowed to follow the calling of a gasfitter, electrician, acetylene generator manufacturer, installer or agent till he has first been proved competent, so far as regards his mechanical and scientific knowledge of the fittings he is about to install, or of the properties of the illuminant or heat-producer to whose use these fittings are to be accommodated. As for gasolene: If it is not possible to forbid its sale and use altogether, both should be fenced round by heavy license fees and other regulations so rigid as to render both practically prohibitory. It is in the interest of municipalities to frame such ordinances and to see that they are strictly lived up to. It is likewise to the interest of insurance companies first to see that ordinances are passed, and that they sufficiently cover the ground, and, then, either to add further restrictive provisions, especially in the case of acetylent, gasolene, and electricity, as shall compel intending insurers to take the necessary steps with respect to storage, installation, and use of these oils, fluids and gases, as shall reduce their resultant risks to the minimum. It may he added that the National Fire Protection association has recently issued a paper calling attention to the fact that there are being exploited in various parts of the United States and Canada certain materials and methods which profess to render harmless gasolene and the other lighter products of petroleum, by removing their dangerous properties. These so-called “magic powders,” “safety compounds,” “anti-explosion solutions,” and the like, and the methods of applying them are shown to be humbugs, and the public is cautioned against purchasing them or using gasolene, etc., in the belief that thereby such petroleum products are rendered innocuous.