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We all like to think that in an emergency we’ll do the right thing.

In a fire, we’ll run into the burning building to alert the family of 10. In a holdup, we’ll trip up the robber and thwart her escape.

We’ll give first aid in an auto accident, perhaps a tracheotomy with a ball-point pen. Rescue the kitten who’s fallen onto the railroad tracks, just in time.

I believe there are genuine heroes, who think fast, act fast and save lives.

I’m not one of them.

I got yet another reminder of that a couple of days ago, on my 79th birthday, which, in theory, could have been my last birthday, to say nothing of those of the several people around me.

I was finishing some errands, with two newly refilled propane tanks for a summer’s worth of grilling in my car’s trunk, and the family dog in the back seat, now gassing up at a Newport station, the kind that comes with its own convenience store. On the other side of the fueling island, a car being tended by a beautiful woman.

Only partially visible behind the gas pumps was one of those classic automobiles fondly remembered from my boyhood, when cars were CARS: gas guzzling polluters; over-long, ridiculous bodies, polluters, impractical as they were unsafe. I’m guessing it was thoroughbred Ford, a made-in-the-USA convertible with the top down. In short, wonderful to behold.

Tending to the car was a young woman in her 20s, shorts, long hair, wielding the long-handled sponge thing that’s usually meant to clean the windshield, but now being used to give the sheet metal sides of the car a bath. 

Liquid was pouring from the bottom of the wonderful car onto the pavement, gushing, in fact, as if a pail of water in the trunk had had tipped over and now was pouring onto the asphalt. Lots and lots.

I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Certainly, it couldn’t be gasoline. Not that much. Not just pouring out of her car at that rate. The smell was impossible to ignore.

“Is that gas?” I said to the beautiful woman.

“Yes,” she said, continuing to wash the side of the car. “It dries right up. Two minutes, it’ll be gone.”

“But that’s really gas?” I said.

“Happens with antique cars,” she said. “It’s nothing to worry about.”

“It’s irresponsible,” I said, although I don’t remember the exact words, because at that moment, I was pretty sure I was going to blow up, along with the three or four other drivers who were also getting gas. Blown to bits. On my 79th birthday.

“Look, you can tell whoever you want,” the beautiful woman said. “But I won’t be around.”

Actually, I had no idea what to do. But it seemed she had a good suggestion. I raced (a relative term at age 79) to the store part of the station, where several people were manning the cash registers. I yelled, pointing to the fuel spill, and one of the attendants told the others he’d clean it up.

As promised, the young lady and her old car were leaving the scene, although in no great hurry. I noticed my own car, where the fuel cap was still off. Could fumes from MY car add to the imminent catastrophe?  Not to mention the two propane tanks in the trunk. Patiently waiting in the backseat, the dog. Our dogs depend on us. And I’d left mine to die.

Lake Gasoline was being tended to by the clerk who’d volunteered to clean things up, putting down some sort of white stuff to absorb the remaining fuel, then sweeping the neutralized mess into a dustpan.

The danger over, I fired up my car and drove off, wondering what I should have done.

Should I have warned my fellow drivers: “Shut off your cars! And run! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!” while pulling my dog out of the back seat and escaping with her.  And then maybe alerting the station’s clerks. What should a fast-thinking, good-in-emergencies, always helpful person do?

When I got home, I called Brian Dugan. He’s the chief of the Newport Fire Department, a firefighter since 1989.  As the person who would have had to deal with the catastrophe I’d failed to prevent, he’d know the answers.

Dugan didn’t downplay the potential for something going wrong. He said it depended on the amount of gasoline being spilled, among other factors. The danger came not from the puddle, or as I saw it, the lake, but from the fumes it was giving off.

“That’s the problem,” he said. “Anybody could have ignited them. Somebody walking by with a cigarette, throwing down a match. It’s a real thing.”

So, what should I have done?

Just what I did, Dugan said: tell the attendants, who could deal with the spill. In extreme cases, when there’s a big amount of fuel, it’s something the fire department does, putting down compounds that absorb gasoline.

What about my imagined Town Crier idea – warning my fellow drivers to shut off their engines and run.

Wrong, he said. My alarm could have had the opposite effect, drawing a crowd. Similar to what happens when there’s an auto crash or other emergency.

“Everyone wants to stare,” the chief said. “I think you did the right thing.”

As I was starting to reconsider my role and join the fast-thinking, quick-moving people who can make a difference, the fire chief changed the subject.

Those propane tanks in your car’s trunk, Dugan said: not good. On a hot day, the sun can raise the temperature inside the closed space, and at high enough temperatures, the tanks could vent the heavier-than-air fuel, which could seep onto the trunk floor and bottom of the car. He left the rest to my imagination.

I should have left the lid of the trunk partially opened, he said keeping the temperature and the space ventilated down. And surely no one should keep those tanks in a car for longer than necessary.

Reminding me again, after 79 years, having escaped, if not caused, imagined and real emergencies, I’m still not the first, or the second, person you might want to call. Apologies in advance.

Brian C. Jones

Brian C. Jones, a regular contributor to What’s Up Newp, is a retired Providence Journal reporter (35 years) and is the co-founder of the Rhode Island Library Report. Brian resides in Newport, Rhode Island.