The forecast called for days in the 50's, nights in the 30's, and rain. Not what any of us, Charlie especially, would consider "ideal" camping conditions ... but he's a great Dad so he and William set off camping, while the other three kids and I made plans for a cozy weekend amidst soccer games.
Charlie and William pulled out at 6:00 PM and by 8:00 PM, I'd fed the kids dinner and we were gearing up to watch a movie on Netflix. While the movie was queueing, I decided to start a fire.
One thing I should mention is that unlike Virginia, where we had a wood burning fireplace, our fireplace in Texas is gas, which is a much easier, and much cleaner than wood (no ash or soot).
We know gas fireplaces. We had one in San Diego. But the gas fireplace at our Texas house is different. Notice the bookshelf on the right side of the fireplace?
That bookcase was constructed by the previous owners and the access to the valve has been cut in to the wood.
The previous owners built the wall unit AROUND the access valve.
The problem, that I noticed the very first time I tried to ignite the fire, is that in order to turn on the gas, you need to reach your hand INSIDE a small hole that was cut in to the casing and access the key which is approximately 3-inches from the surface.
From Day 1, I haven't liked this configuration because if you drop the key inside the casing, there's no way to get it back out. I've had it in mind to fix this awkward setup, but haven't done it yet.
And yes - yes - of course it happens on Friday night, when I'm home alone with the kids, I crank on the gas line and the key falls inside the wall. So there I am with the gas ON and what I should have done is immediately ignited the gas.
But my mind was reeling with, "I DROPPED THE *%#! KEY, MUST HAVE CONTROL OF GAS..." so I ran in to the bedroom, desperately looking for another key in our bedroom fireplace. By the time I got back to the living room, the gas had been on for more than 30 seconds, and I didn't want to ignite the gas because of the accumulation, there would likely be a fire ball. So I instead stuck the key in to the dark casing and tried to turn the gas off.
Lefty Lucy ... Righty Tighty.
I figured we'd skip a fire, the accumulated gas would dissipate, and all would be well. We watched our movie, and went to bed. Everything is secure ... so I think.
Saturday morning, we wake up and scramble out the door at 8:00 AM to Henry's soccer game. I think I smell gas when I go outside, but am not entirely sure. When we come home at 10:30 AM, so the girls can get ready for their soccer game at 11:30, I notice that there are two fire trucks parked in front of our house, and at least five firemen are walking up and down our street with monitors.
They're popping sewer lids and checking air levels.
The definite smell of gas hits me when I walk past our side yard and in to the garage, but I think it's probably off gas from our next door neighbor igniting his hot tub. The thought flashed through my mind to have the firemen come check out our yard, but my anxiety to get to the soccer game on time, won out.
We return from the soccer game, and when we pull in to the driveway, the smell of gas hits me, again. This time it's stronger. Much more concentrated - along the side of the house. "That's odd!" I think, as I sent Charlie a text message. "There's a strong smell of gas, not sure where it's coming from. Might be our outdoor kitchen? Fire pit? Perhaps its the neighbors?"
The kids and I take down our Christmas tree - cleanup the house - and each time I walk to our side yard to throw out trash, I'm taken aback by that smell of gas. I'm curious, but I'm not overly alarmed, as I walk around the perimeter of our house, checking the various gas connections and can't seem to find anything out of the ordinary.
Saturday night, we watch another movie, and go to bed.
Sunday morning, I get up and take Louie for a walk. Coming back to the house, I still smell gas and for whatever asinine reason, I'm not alarmed. I'd like to blame my lack of concern on my recent brain surgery and obvious diminished competency.
Within a few hours, Charlie comes back home and when he goes to the backyard and pops up the saturated tents to air out, he is downright alarmed at the smell of gas. He immediately calls the Gas Company and reports a potential leak. Within 15 minutes, we have a technician at our front door and he walks the perimeter with a gas monitor and confirms that there are hits all around the house. He then instructs us to turn off all the gas coming in to the house.
I'm in the kitchen cleaning up from breakfast and Charlie comes in saying, "Jen, you need to turn off ALL the gas in the house." I reassured him, "Everything IS off."
The technician is talking to Charlie from outside, and my husband yells in to the kitchen, "He says the gas meter is spinning...." The technician then comes in to the house with his gas monitor and walks through the kitchen. He walks over to the fireplace and opening the glass doors, yells, "THIS IS IT! TURN OFF THE GAS!!"
Charlie fumbled his hand in to the wall unit, through the little hole, and cranked down on the key. Then both he and the technician turned around and stared at me with bug eyes.
They both began rapid firing me with questions, "When did you say you turned that on? Do you realize it was opened to HIGH? Which way did you turn it, when you thought you were turning it off?" The technician looked at us and said, "This could have been very bad. This could have been a real tragedy...." His voice trails off, as Charlie looks and me and his eyes are filling with tears.
I'd been in the kitchen, with a soapy pot in my hand, feeling very indignant. "I turned it off!! I know that I totally turned it off! It must be broken....!"
The technician left, and as I contemplated what had happened, I barked, "That damn fireplace! Whoever built it where you can't access the key properly ... what the hell were they thinking?"
The gas to our fireplace, had been on high, for more than FORTY HOURS, un-ignited. If not for the draft which caused the warm air from our house to be pulled in and up through the chimney, and accumulate on the side of the house (where I smelled it), the gas would have come in to the house, displaced all oxygen, and we would have all asphyxiated; particularly if it happened at night when we were sleeping and didn't notice the odor. Or, there might have been a catastrophic explosion ... like this one had someone ignited something like a cigarette along the side yard.
My Promise to the Universe is that I am going to rip out the entire bookcase and have a new ignition valve designed. OR, I'm going to concrete in the entire fireplace.
By Sunday evening, a dark cloud was upon me. On some subconscious level, I knew there was a problem as early as Saturday morning, because I had considered calling over the firemen to investigate. My neighbor would later tell me that another fire truck came by on Saturday afternoon, and the Sheriff's car was outside of our house on Sunday morning. By the time I went to bed, I was physically sick with the what ifs of what could have happened to me and my three children. Monday morning, I could hardly move from the grief and sadness at the thought of 4/6 in our family being wiped out because of MY negligence. Me and these three ...
This weekend, I am feeling better and confident that YES, we will be redesigning the fireplace. We will be cutting out a more appropriate access point for the gas valve, and exploring a remote control system. Charlie asked me how I didn't know that I'd turned it wide open, instead of off. Didn't I hear the gentle, whooooosh of the gas? Answer, no, because I'm still partially deaf following my surgery, especially low range sounds. Didn't I remember "Righty Tighty, Lefty Lucy?" Answer, yes, of course I know that. But I have no answer what happened Friday night except, I was flustered and tried to get it off as quickly as I could. So when we do the redesign, we will clearly add a label that reads, "OFF" with an arrow pointing to the right.
So many times in life, things happen where our life, or safety, might be compromised and we may not even realize it. This wasn't one of those times. This is up there as the scariest WHAT-IF moments of my entire life. I think it's hit me so hard because I've been raised in a safety culture where ALL accidents are preventable. And this could have been prevented, or curtailed, at so many points:
- Had I fixed the valve sooner, the valve that I knew was a problem, I wouldn't have lost the key inside the wall, that put me in a mild panic and caused a mad dash for me to run and find another key.
- Had I ignited the fire, anyway, I would have known it was on, and I would have properly turned the gas off before we went to bed. It was the NOT igniting it, that got me in trouble.
- Had I summoned the firemen to come investigate on Saturday, they likely would have found the source. It was like God whispering in my ear to have them come over ... and I ignored it.
- Had I been more alarmed (why wasn't I alarmed?!) at the smell of gas on Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon, Saturday evening, or any point on Sunday - I would have called the emergency response line at the Gas Department and figured it out sooner.
With the amazing luck I've had, I'd probably now be a billionaire.