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Life in the Parks: "Come Quick! There's Been an Explosion!"


The NPS ambulance at Willow Beach, Arizona, in 1974. Photo courtesy of Jim Burnett.

Rangers who both work and live in parks receive some unusual after-hours phone calls, but this one on an early winter's evening was guaranteed to get my adrenalin flowing: The woman on the line was nearly hysterical, but her message got right to the point: "Come quick! There's been an explosion!"

That would be a sobering message anywhere, but the caller worked and lived at a nearby resort about a mile from the ranger station at Willow Beach, Arizona, a location that meant this disconcerting news could be even worse than it sounded. Lake Mead National Recreation Area, on the Arizona-Nevada border south of Las Vegas, is spread over an enormous area of desert and water. When something goes seriously awry, it's a long trip to the nearest hospital from the outlying areas in that sprawling park.

One of those remote locations is Willow Beach, located downstream from Hoover Dam in the depths of Black Canyon in the northwest corner of Arizona. In the early 1970s, Willow Beach was home to a big NPS campground and a busy resort that included a large marina, motel, restaurant and trailer village. US 93, the main highway from Phoenix to Las Vegas, passed through a corner of the park about four miles from Willow Beach, and our ranger station was the only source of  emergency help for many a lonely desert mile.

The nearest ambulance was about thirty miles away, over the state line in Boulder City, Nevada, and that drive on winding mountain roads and across Hoover Dam wasn't a speedy one. There were times we definitely needed an alternative, so some resourceful scrounging by my boss rounded up a used ambulance cot and a basic selection of emergency medical gear. We removed the back seats from our late 1960s Chevy Carryall, installed our "new" equipment, and voilá—we had an ambulance.

Although it was primitive by today's standards, the vehicle proved very useful on several occasions. We couldn't anticipate, of course, how our makeshift ambulance would eventually prove helpful in ways that weren't entirely medical … until the night of the explosion.

Based on the sobering information from that phone call, I was greatly relieved upon my arrival to find the mobile home still intact; better yet, there was no visible smoke or flames. This was very good news indeed, because we didn't have a fire truck and the other half of our two-man ranger staff at Willow Beach was away on vacation. That meant the total extent of emergency forces within about an hour's drive consisted of me …and our ambulance.
The woman who had phoned met me at the door, motioned for me to come in, and gestured urgently toward her husband. He was sitting on the kitchen floor in front of the open oven, his expression a curious combination of dazed and distressed. As I hurried into the room, it was impossible not to notice that an unusual and not especially pleasant odor hung heavily in the air.
The relationship between the rangers and the staff at the resort was cooperative and congenial, but on the evening in question, neither of those adjectives applied to this particular employee. He was quickly coming back to his senses—and he was not happy with the state of his world.
A quick reconstruction of the evening's events determined that the man of the house, whom I’ll refer to as Flash, had come home from work ready to try a new recipe for supper. A key component in the dish was a sauce containing rum, and the would-be chef had felt the need of a liberal sample of that product in its original form prior to using it for culinary purposes. Those "quality-control" measures had been followed by a hefty dose of another beverage that cannot be legally sold to minors.
Once primed and ready to embark on his kitchen adventure, our chef dutifully followed step one in the instructions: preheat the oven. His wife had almost immediately detected the smell of propane and suggested a reasonable explanation: “The oven pilot light is out again.” This is a situation where it always pays to follow the instructions, and a failure to do so can result in a Very Melancholy Situation.
You may think the following scenario occurs only in cartoons and old slapstick movies, but Flash was the exception to the rule in several categories. He failed to immediately turn off the gas to the oven, didn’t allow any time for the fumes to dissipate, and yes, he really did strike a match and open the oven door to relight the pilot light. The resulting minor explosion was predictable, but Flash (along with his spouse and the mobile home) was very fortunate on several counts.
First, not much time had elapsed between starting the oven and opening the door, so only a limited amount of gas had accumulated inside the stove before Flash ignited the fumes. Second, he was a man large in stature, both vertically and horizontally, and therefore moved rather deliberately. As a result, he hadn't leaned very far over the open oven door before the fireworks began. Finally, Flash was wearing a pair of large eyeglasses, which may have prevented serious injuries to his eyes.
Even so, the victim had not escaped totally unscathed, and as I approached him to offer assistance, the source of that unusual odor became apparent. Flash now sported a new, shorter hairdo, especially in the front…but at least it matched his badly singed eyebrows. The previously abundant hair on the back of his hands and forearms was in a similar condition, but amazingly he seemed to have only minor burns.
Now that the initial shock was wearing off, the effects of Flash’s recently consumed ingredients for the sauce were moving the situation in a very undesirable direction. He began to direct his ire at his spouse; she responded in a predictable manner. Flash outweighed me by at least a hundred pounds, and as the lone ranger in the territory I had no desire to allow this problem to deteriorate into a domestic disturbance.

At that point, the availability of our trusty ambulance came to the rescue.
Employing my best bedside manner, I managed to refocus Flash’s attention on his potential injuries, and I readily confess I played it to the hilt. Even though the thick eyeglasses had fortunately protected his eyes from any obvious injury, I suggested that a trip to the hospital would be wise, because in such situations it was possible to suffer damage to one’s vision from the sudden "blinding flash" of the explosion.
Some sympathetic questioning produced an admission from Flash that his vision was in fact “a little blurry.” No big surprise there, given his recent liquid intake, but that provided just the opening I needed. I suggested that to prevent any chance of  lingering eye damage, he should remove his glasses, close his eyes, and let me cover them with a loose sterile dressing until he had been examined by a doctor.
My well-stocked medical kit included several oval eye patches, which I was quick to point out were provided “for situations just like this one.” Once these patches were applied and held in place by copious amounts of wide gauze bandages wrapped around his head, Flash was effectively blindfolded—and now relatively harmless. Just for good measure I also swathed both hands with additional wraps of gauze, which had the added benefit of immobilizing his fingers and thumbs. I’ll have to say that the overall “mummy” effect was rather impressive, but most important, Flash was now a much more cooperative patient.
A friend volunteered to ride in the back of our ambulance with Flash, and his wife agreed to follow us to town in their car and retrieve him from the hospital. By the time the emergency room treatment and inevitable paperwork were all completed, the effects of his pre-dinner libations had worn off, and a considerably subdued Flash returned home, none much the worse for wear—at least over the long term.

Shortly after this misadventure, Flash and his spouse moved away, so I don't know if he abandoned his budding culinary career. I do hope he learned an essential lesson: too much sauce can spoil the cook.

This story is adapted from the book Hey Ranger 2: More True Tales of Humor and Misadventure from the Great Outdoors  © Jim Burnett and Taylor Trade Publishing, used by permission.

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Some fine fun reading this morning.  Thanks, Jim.

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