Nothing happened the first time the two boys tried to light a tiki torch in the back yard of an East Central home on Monday.
The second time, the torch exploded. Flaming denatured alcohol splashed onto the 11-year-old and his 12-year-old friend.
Panicked and on fire, the older boy ran. His injured friend raced after him, helped strip off his burning shirt, then rushed him into a cold shower.
“If you think about what he did - there are adults who would not have that much sense or composure in a situation like that,” said Lt. Mike Zambryski, the Spokane Fire Department investigator who handled the case.
The younger boy suffered first- and second-degree burns. He was treated and released from Holy Family Hospital.
The 12-year-old received second- and third-degree burns on his left arm and face, and parts of his chest and back. He is in stable condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, but will need reconstructive surgery on his left ear, Zambryski said.
The accident is part of a disturbing trend of kids playing with more volatile and explosive substances, the investigator said.
“It used to be kids would take lighters and matches and burn paper or leaves,” said Zambryski, who’s been a firefighter and paramedic for 21 years.
“Now we have propane torches and flammable liquids. We had a house fire on West Francis last year where two juveniles poured gasoline on the floor and lit it. It was a duplex and people were sleeping in the other half,” Zambryski said.
On Thursday morning, someone left a propane torch burning on a wooden support for playground equipment at Roosevelt Elementary School. Zambryski thinks the torch was left by a juvenile.
While the number of juveniles arrested for fire-related crimes dropped slightly in 1997 from the previous year - from 14 to 12 - those statistics don’t include the boy who needs skin grafts because his leg was burned while playing with lighter fluid.
They also don’t include the seven boys caught using aerosol cans as miniature flame-throwers. They will be counseled by Zambryski, but they could have been charged with felonies.
“I don’t know where they are picking this up from - the movies maybe,” he said.
Zambryski said he doesn’t know how to combat the trend.
“I know it is difficult for working parents to keep track of their kids, and I think the Fire Department works real hard to keep on top of this (through education),” he said. “I don’t know what the answer is.”
Education could have played a role in the tiki torch accident.
The older boy ran, Zambryski said. When the fire department makes its visits to schools, it teaches kids to stop, drop and roll, thus extinguishing the fire as quickly as possible.
The boys used denatured alcohol in a torch designed for oil, Zambryski said. When lit, vapor from the alcohol expanded and burst the seams of the torch’s oil container, he said.
Juveniles and parents also may not know what penalties they face until it’s too late. A 12-year-old who set a shed on fire in a Hillyard hazardous waste dump in 1996 was convicted of first-degree arson. He was sentenced to time in juvenile detention. His parents were sent a $10,000 firefighting bill.
“If we find the kid who did it, the parents will be responsible,” Zambryski said.