Wednesday, March 19, 2014

May 7, 2003: Our Rental Car Burns to the Ground

This was written before I started to write my monthly letters and this blog.  I thought I would post this amazing story.

     Last night, Jim Davis and I traveled from NYC to York, PA.  Our warehouse design consultants, St. Onge, were having their annual conference on Supply Chain Management on May 7-8 which we are attending.
     Yesterday was Colgate’s annual meeting at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.  In the afternoon, they have an employee’s only version of the meeting which is both informative and quite entertaining.  Our plan was to leave from there around 5 p.m., pick-up a rental car from Avis a few blocks away and hit the road.  The cost of a rental car for the entire three days was less than an Amtrak ticket for one of us, which was our usual mode of transportation to York for previous visits.  So, we were both saving the company money and giving ourselves control and flexibility in our schedule.
    When we went to get the car, I noticed a Maroon Buick Rendezvous in the lot.  I told Jim that he should ask for that rather than the normal mid-size fare Avis would have given us.  The Avis lady told us it was an extra $9 a day, and we took it.  We were surprised and impressed to find that the Rendezvous was brand spanking new.  It had only 26 miles on the odometer.  So, feeling good in our cushy ride, we left the Avis location on 42nd between 9th and 10th Avenues, wormed our way through traffic to the Lincoln tunnel, and head out toward Pennsylvania on I-78.  The weather was nice; we were cruising and chatting about everything from work to family to general blah blah blah.
     Armed with directions from Yahoo Maps, we were moving right along until we got near Reading, PA.  The directions, as both Yahoo and Mapquest can sometimes be, got a little confusing.  We were supposed to follow US 222 South and US 422 East, sometimes on one, sometimes on the other, and sometimes on both as they were merged.  Each of these segments was like .7, 1.2, .3, 6.4 miles.  It was not clear and we ended up about 15 miles off track.
     We decided to get a map.  So we stopped at a Wawa, an improvement to the 7-11 chain reportedly started by an Armenian.  All they had was a thirty page atlas style map of Pennsylvania for around $15.  We needed it, so I bought it.  Upon finding the right page, it became clear how we got lost.  Around Reading was a spider web of roads, like any moderately sized town, but in this case every other one was named either US 222 or US 422.  No wonder Yahoo Maps was confused and less wonder that we were confused and got diverted.  We laughed plotted our route and moved out.
      We lost about an hour in all both for travel time and looking for a place to buy a map but we were having a nice time and would still get to York around 9:30 or so.  We took US 222 south to Lancaster and then Route 30 west toward York.
     On route 30, the climate control system started acting strange.  It went to high all by itself, which was odd since the system was not automatic in anyway.  The fan would shift from high to low and back to high again.  It, obviously, got our attention and we tried to adjust it to no avail.  Finally, we decided, what the heck, just turn it off.  While the dial could easily be turned to OFF, the fan did not shut off.  OK, we thought, we have a warranty problem on our hands.
     Next a mist started coming out of the vents, like an antifreeze leak in the cooling system I had experienced with another GM product in the 70’s.  It started getting worse and started smelling.  I turned on the map light and it was foggy in the cabin, so we opened the window, to clear the air.  I then looked down at my feet and saw a small orange flame just above my toes.  I told Jim, “The car is on fire.”  He glanced over, saw the orange glow, and said “I am pulling over.”  He kind of cut someone off and we ended up on the shoulder on a most pleasant spring evening.
     We jumped out of the car.  I looked and saw the fire and an ooze of molten rubbery sludge dripping down from behind the dash board onto the floor mats and carpet.  I tried to put the fire out with the floor mat, but the swatting action actually seemed to fan the flames fueled by the continued ooze of molten insulation.  It was surprising how much was dripping down.  I was squatted down like a catcher trying to swat the flames.  Jim was behind me like an umpire providing guidance.  The cabin began to fill with thick smoke that had that awful smell of burning plastic.  Then, Jim noticed that a glow from under the hood that indicated that the engine compartment and suggested, “Let’s get our stuff and get away from this car.”  It seemed like very sound advice as the fire continued to spread.
     Jim was moving the luggage as I was calling 911.  By the time we got about 100 yards from the car, the entire car was aflame.  I was trying to explain to the 911 operator our predicament and where we were.    We knew we were on US 30 between Lancaster and York, but we didn’t know between which exits.  All we saw was a sign announcing that there was a MacDonald’s, a Wendy’s and a Subway at the next exit.  The 911 operator did not find this information particularly helpful.  She also did not understand the full extent of our predicament.  Jim reminded me later that I said, “You don’t understand, the car is completely engulfed in flames and thick black smoke is pluming up thirty feet!”

     People on both sides of the expressway were stopping to see if we were OK and if we needed help.  They were very nice.  Later when we were reflecting and thankful for on not being hurt and the car not being one that we owned, we were also thankful that none of these nice people were hurt in a secondary accident.  One nice lady informed us that she called 911 with much better location info and just then the operator I was talking to asked if I was the car totally on fire near the Prospect Road exit in Columbia.  I just responded “I assume that is us.  Even if there are two cars on fire, just dispatch the police and fire department.  Whoever it is needs the help.”  She told me the police and fire departments were on their way.  They could take their time because it was clear that the car was going to be a total loss.
     Traffic was completely stopped in our direction as people were afraid to pass by this inferno.  Traffic in the other direction was down to a trickle due to gawkers.  We kept backing up, especially when the first police car arrived and stopped another 100 yards behind where we were standing.  Then, the rear tires popped followed shortly by the gas tank rupturing.  Neither was nearly as loud or remotely as big a flash of flames as TV and movies have led us to expect.  Next I noticed a young man taking photos.  He said he had a digital camera.  I gave him my e-mail address and he promised to send me the photos.  The photos came a few months later with an explanation that being a graduating senior at Penn State, he was busy graduating, moving etc.  I am glad he remembered and sent the photos!  A little photographic evidence helps this story out. 
     More police and fire department arrived from both sides.  Traffic was stopped on both sides, but the show was over.  The fire was actually dying down when the fire department put it out.  The car was a total loss.  Everything that wasn’t metal was burned.  The windows were gone.  It was unbelievable and the whole experience was definitely surreal.  We called our wives.  Jim’s wife kept repeating, “You’re kidding me” and Judy kept saying “Oh, my God” as we went through the story.  It is definitely a tale we will keep telling.  The car went up in flames so fast Jim wondered “if the car was made out of the same materials they make fuses out of.”

     We were interviewed by both the police and the fire chief as they had to file reports.  The fire chief wanted to know if we were smoking in the car, which we definitely were not.  I did tell him that we had fired up the hibachi and were grilling some burgers.”  The officer asked us if we had anything of value left in the car.  As we had gotten our belongings out, I replied “nothing but the Rembrandts we had just bought at a roadside stand.”   Both these guys had a great sense of humor.  
     We called Avis as it was their car.  I told the Avis lady what happened.  She asked if I had the rental agreement.  I responded no.  She asked if I could retrieve it from the car.  I told her, “you are not fully understanding the situation here.  The car is completely engulfed in flames.  The rental agreement is toast.”  She then basically told us who we had to contact a local agency the next day during business hours.  Yokay then.  
     A police officer offered to give us a ride.  We were happy for this as our means of transportation was now a burned out metal shell.  We jumped in the patrol car and off we went.  We went two exits and the officer was pulling off.  I said, “our exit is another five miles.”  He said, “this is the county line, I am not authorized to go further.”  Really?  So, I called Ned our St. Onge contact.  Luckily, his phone rang just as he was about to shut it off for the night.  He happily came and got us.  Thanks Ned.
     We then checked into the hotel and we decided that a night cap was in order.  We went to the bar, ordered our drinks, and enjoyed them while watching a report on the 11 pm news of our rental car burning to the ground.
     Luckily, no one was hurt.  Thankfully, it was not one of our cars, though we still feel bad about this happening to a brand new car.  We are both are stuck with the image of the smoke coming from the car, the flames by my feet, the black goop oozing out from behind the dash (today I noticed I had some on my shoe that will probably never come off), and seeing the entire vehicle totally in flames.  We are also totally amazed at how quickly the fire spread.  Unbelievable.

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