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I guess that I can cross “escape from a burning car” off of my bucket list…

February 13, 2018, 2:40 PM

Sad to say, my 2012 Kia Soul is no more.  On the night of February 7, in Lucketts, Virginia, as Elyse and I were on the way back home from a trip around the area with friends, my car caught fire and was destroyed in the resulting inferno.  Thankfully, we both escaped without injury.

The day had gone pretty well.  We had gotten together with two friends, Trent and Jackson, and we went from Gaithersburg to Rockville to Silver Spring to DC to Alexandria to Annandale seeing various things, with a focus mostly on elevators, as Elyse, Trent, and Jackson are all elevator enthusiasts.  I have somewhat of an interest in them, but not nearly as strong as the other three.  At the end of our day, we dropped Trent off at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, and then took Jackson up to Dulles Airport to meet up with family members of his that were flying in from out of town.  After we left Jackson with his relatives, Elyse and I headed out.  We took the Dulles Greenway to Leesburg, and then headed north on Route 15, intending to go over the Point of Rocks Bridge, and then continuing to follow Route 15 until we reached Frederick, after which we would turn south to head home.

However, circumstances would dictate otherwise.  As we were going up Route 15, the car suddenly started losing accelerative power, getting it back, losing it again, and so on.  The end result was that I was rapidly losing speed.  Elyse thought that it was the transmission slipping, and with that in mind, I was trying to see if I could get the car to a safe location in order to stop and call AAA for a tow truck.  A transmission problem would be covered under the Kia 100,000 mile powertrain warranty, and so, like the engine replacement that I had a couple of months ago, I would take it to the dealer to get it fixed, and everything would be fine.

Then things went from bad to worse, as Elyse and I both saw flames shoot out from underneath the car on our respective sides.  I stopped the car, and we got out of the car as quickly as possible.  It all happened so fast.  I remember getting out of the driver’s side door and running around the front to the roadside, just as Elyse landed in the ditch alongside the road.  We then ran around to the back of the car and quickly grabbed our stuff out of the back, i.e. our coats, my tablet, my real camera, and the shopping bags, and then got a safe distance away.  I called 911, and shot some photos of the fire as I talked to 911.

The early stages of the fire, at 10:45 PM.  Note that the lights are still on, and flame is visible coming out from under the hood, through the grille, and underneath.
The early stages of the fire, at 10:45 PM.  Note that the lights are still on, and flame is visible coming out from under the hood, through the grille, and underneath.

Twenty seconds later, the fire is much larger, and has spread to the passenger area.  The person driving the Hummer in the other lane inquired about how we were doing, and also called 911.
Twenty seconds later, the fire is much larger, and has spread to the passenger area.  The person driving the Hummer in the other lane inquired about how we were doing, and also called 911.

Two minutes later, the car is fully involved, with flames rising twice as high as the car.
Two minutes later, the car is fully involved, with flames rising twice as high as the car.

Eight seconds later, the fire has burned through the Kia logo on the hood.  I specifically remember watching that happen, stunned.
Eight seconds later, the fire has burned through the Kia logo on the hood.  I specifically remember watching that happen, stunned.

Two minutes later, the fire department was on scene.  Note that there's so much flame that you can barely even see the car.
Two minutes later, the fire department was on scene.  Note that there’s so much flame that you can barely even see the car.

Putting out the fire.
Putting out the fire.

Still putting out the fire.
Still putting out the fire.

And the fire was brought under control.
And the fire was brought under control.

Elyse got a video of the fire:


The left front tire blows up at the thirty second mark, and you can also hear the airbags and various other things pop shortly thereafter.  The fire department is on scene at about 1:45, and they start hosing it down at around 3:30.  By the end of the video, it was mostly out, and they were working on hot spots.

When the fire department arrived, they offered for us to wait in the ambulance in order to keep warm.  After the fire was out, we took them up on the offer.  We also gave statements to a police officer on scene.  Elyse called her parents and made arrangements with them for us to get picked up, and then we waited in the ambulance for the tow truck to arrive.  The police officer told me that the car was totaled, to which I responded, with a slight chuckle, “I could have told you that!”

When the tow truck arrived, we saw the aftermath:

The remains of my Kia Soul, viewed from the front.  The fire had turned my green car white.

The remains of my Kia Soul, viewed from the front.  The fire had turned my green car white.
The remains of my Kia Soul, viewed from the front.  The fire had turned my green car white.

The rear of my car following the fire.
The rear of my car following the fire.

The front seats.  The interior was completely burned out.  Scary to think that Elyse and I had been sitting in these seats less than an hour earlier.
The front seats.  The interior was completely burned out.  Scary to think that Elyse and I had been sitting in these seats less than an hour earlier.

Debris that melted off of the front of the car.  This is the front bumper, the grille, the headlights, and various other things.  Pretty sure that the front license plate was in there as well.  You can see part of the radiator sitting on top.
Debris that melted off of the front of the car.  This is the front bumper, the grille, the headlights, and various other things.  Pretty sure that the front license plate was in there as well.  You can see part of the radiator sitting on top.

Loading the car onto the tow truck.  It was being taken to Terry's Body Shop in Purcellville.  That was a sad moment for me, because I knew that it was the last time that I would ever see my car.  And truthfully, that was fine - I never want to see the little fireball on wheels again.
Loading the car onto the tow truck.  It was being taken to Terry’s Body Shop in Purcellville.  That was a sad moment for me, because I knew that it was the last time that I would ever see my car.  And truthfully, that was fine – I never want to see the little fireball on wheels again.

A firefighter uses a shovel to scrape the debris from the fire off of the road, so that the road could reopen.
A firefighter uses a shovel to scrape the debris from the fire off of the road, so that the road could reopen.

And that was that.  The tow truck left with the car, the fire trucks left, and the police officer reopened the road.  As each unit left, I made sure to thank them for their help.  Elyse and I were waiting in the ambulance while they determined a safe place for us to wait to be picked up by Elyse’s father, who was en route.  The plan was to take us to a nearby Gulf station, but they were closing in five minutes.  We then waited in the ambulance outside the fire department while they called in to get permission to let us wait inside there.  They couldn’t get hold of their people in reasonable time, so they looked to see if the next gas station, a Valero station, was open.  They were closed as well.  Then we found out that Elyse’s father was nearby (he had actually passed us without realizing it), and we quickly arranged to meet up with him at the Gulf station.

You don’t know how delighted I was to see him, because it meant that the whole ordeal would be over soon.  We were going home.  We thanked the ambulance crew, and got in the car.  On the way home, I was filing the insurance claim on Progressive’s app, and I also looked at social media to see if there was anything about our incident other than the photos that I posted.  I found these on the Twitter:

Tweets about the fire

I’ve seen many traffic alerts on social media over the years, but it was kind of surreal to see this and realize that they were talking about me.

Then when we got home, we immediately went to work getting rid of the smoke smell that was on everything.  We both took showers, and I ran a load of laundry that night to get the smell out of our clothes.  Taking the shower, and then putting something comfortable on afterward was very calming.  It was a reassurance that everything would be fine, and life would go on.

I’m not going to comment on the cause of the fire at this time, because the insurance company is still conducting its investigation into the matter, though I certainly have my own thoughts as to the cause.  We’ll revisit that matter once the cause is formally determined, and we’ll see if my theory is correct.

Taking the fire as a given, though, I’m glad that it happened when and where it did.  I knew that there was a gas station not far up the road from our location, and that was the safe place that I was intending to take the car in order to call for a tow truck.  Imagine if I had made it to the gas station, and the fire happened there.  We would have been sitting on top of, or at least in very close proximity to, tens of thousands of gallons of fuel.  That could have been a major disaster if the fuel had caught fire, as there was a small trailer park located behind the gas station, as well as other structures nearby.  Since we didn’t make it there, and there was nothing around us, the worst that could have happened is that the fire would have burned itself out.  Similarly, it happened on a rural road in Loudoun County rather than a more populated area.  In other words, we didn’t screw up traffic that badly, though we certainly did cause a backup.  Then I’m also glad that we had dropped everyone off before it happened.  I’m glad that Trent and Jackson were both gone when the fire happened, because that’s fewer people to need to escape.  Plus the logistics of getting back to our various homes would have been more complicated, because Trent lives in DC and Jackson was staying in Leesburg.  Elyse and I live together, so getting us home was pretty straightforward.

Meanwhile, you would expect that something like a car fire would be a very scary situation.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t.  The whole thing happened so quickly that we didn’t even have time to be scared.  We saw the fire ignite under the engine compartment, and we just reacted.  I immediately stopped the car, and we got away.  It’s not like you see on television, which is designed for maximum drama.  Nobody was scared in the moment.  Seriously, it happened that quickly.  It was worse after it was over, once the adrenaline started to wear off, as only then did the realization of what happened sink in, i.e. that we had just escaped a big fire that could have ended much worse, that my car was gone, and that I now had a lot of things to sort through related to what had just happened.

These two photos that Jackson took in the car earlier in the day – one of me driving, and one of Trent – also made me think quite a bit.


Photo: Jackson Slater


Photo: Jackson Slater

It’s kind of surreal.  None of us knew that the car was essentially a ticking time bomb and would not survive the day, nor did we think that these would be the last photos ever taken of my car fully intact.  It also made me upset that I, unknowingly, endangered all of our lives by driving around in a vehicle that was about to catch fire.  None of us ever expected that the car would have caught fire, nor did we have any way of knowing what would happen, but it nonetheless upsets me.  It’s like an adventure game that is put in an unwinnable state.  The game won’t tell you right away that you can’t win when you forgot something or took an action that has consequences later on, but then eventually, it all comes to this:

"We're glad you could play Space Quest IV. As usual, you've been a real pantload."

That’s how I felt, rightly or not, after everything was over, i.e. that I had been going around all day with the “game” in an unwinnable state.  And in the end, Gary Owens was calling me a pantload.

My next day at work after the fire was Friday, and I was in a surprisingly good mood – the kind of good mood that you’re in on the first day back from a vacation.  I typically don’t look forward to my Fridays because I do three round trips instead of two, and that makes for a rather long day.  That Friday was one of the easiest days that I’d had in a long time.  I suppose that an event like a car fire puts things into perspective, and that three round trips behind a train console isn’t that bad compared to the alternative.

And now, all we have left of the Soul are the memories.

Categories: Elyse, Friends, Kia Soul, Virginia