Firepots blamed in burns: Accident victims say citronella gel burned them like napalm
Rachael Smilowitz remembers screaming as the fireball exploded across the back porch of her West Ashley home and flames engulfed her legs.
She and her husband Ken had just put their two kids to bed. It had been a good day. A trip to the beach, a family dinner. Now, they were ready for a little quiet time and small talk with Ken's mom on the porch.
They put on some music and chatted while Ken leaned over to light a ceramic firepot full of citronella gel to keep the bugs away. Flame hit the jelly-like fuel and -- WOOSH! -- Rachael Smilowitz was suddenly on fire.
Smilowitz said the May 21 incident, left her with debilitating second- and third-degree burns, and involved the same type of firepot and fuel reportedly tied to at least four other burn accidents around the country in recent weeks. Victims have compared the flaming, clinging gel to napalm.
The incidents prompted the manufacturer, Georgia-based Napa Home and Garden, on Monday to halt sales of its gel burners and fuel as a precautionary measure.
In a written statement, the company said it has hired a third-party expert to review the product's safety, warning labels and "care and use" information.
Napa also has asked its fuel supplier to determine if there was anything wrong with the batches involved in the incidents.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission has opened an investigation into the products after receiving eight reports of explosions or burns involving firepots or fuel gel since April 2010, according to a report in The New York Times. A June 10 story in the Times detailed accounts of two New Yorkers severely burned in firepot accidents.
Napa has sold tens of thousands of the devices over the past two years, according to the company's statement. A company spokesman said the number of firepots in circulation is likely in the millions when other brands are figured in.
The firepots are fairly simple devices comprised of a ceramic pot with a stainless steel cup in the middle. The gel is poured into the cup and then lit on fire. No wick is needed.
Smilowitz, a 33-year-old mother of two, said she had no idea the firepot posed a threat.
She said the flame leaped several feet from the pot to where she was sitting on a love seat. Her husband jumped to her aid, wrapping his arms around her to smother the flames. He was burned in the process, she said.
Smilowitz, a school teacher, was rushed to a Medical University Hospital and then transported to a burn center in Augusta. She's undergone multiple surgeries and a painful skin graft to repair the badly burned left foot she nearly lost in the incident. An avid runner who has competed in marathons, Smilowitz now struggles to make it across her living room with the aid of a walker.
"I don't want this to ever happen to anyone else," she said. "People don't realize how dangerous this is."
Napa stated that its burners and fuel containers already have extensive warnings, but some folks think the warnings are insufficient at best.
Motley Rice attorney David Hoyle represents Smilowitz and another woman who was severely burned in a similar incident in Spartanburg just four days later. That woman remains in intensive care at the Augusta burn center, he said.
Hoyle and fellow attorney Anne Kearse said the gel fuel is like gasoline in a bottle, but its container is labeled "people safe" and "safe pourable gel." Hoyle said the fuel is more than 90 percent ethyl alcohol, a highly flammable substance with vapors denser than propane.
"I actually consider myself lucky," Smilowitz said. "I thank God it was my legs. It could have been my face. It could have been my mother-in-law or my husband or my kids. It just happened to go in that direction. It could have been a million times worse."