An explosion in a New Martinsville man's beard left him badly burned and in critical condition on the morning of Nov. 21.
A 76-year-old man, on continuous medical oxygen, burst into flames as he tried to light his tobacco pipe. New Martinsville Fire Chief Larry Couch reported that it appears that the man's heavy beard and hair allowed for a retention of higher than normal amounts of oxygen around his face and head, with the hair acting to trap his supplemental breathing oxygen. As the man went to light his tobacco pipe, he burst into flames, resulting in first, second, and third degree burns around his face, head, and neck, as well as possible burns to his respiratory tract.
The man was treated and removed from the apartment by New Martinsville fire personnel to an awaiting Middlebourne Emergency Medical Squad ambulance. The Middlebourne ambulance transported the victim to the AirEvac helipad at Wetzel County Hospital and he was flown to West Penn Burn Center in Pittsburgh, where he was listed in critical condition.
The first fire engine was on the scene of the explosion within two minutes of being dispatched to 410 Maple Avenue, Apartment #2 location, and found the victim in the kitchen of the apartment still smoking from the explosion, Couch said. New Martinsville fire crews were already responding to an emergency in the Proctor area and two fire engines were diverted to the Maple Avenue call, while other personnel tended to the emergency in Proctor.
"We have had at least four similar events in the past four years," lamented Couch. "The warnings about medical oxygen must be adhered to and can't be taken lightly. Oxygen enhances the ability of materials to burn. Nearly any flammable materials will ignite far more readily in an oxygen rich environment and materials like clothing, bedding, and hair tend to trap and hold the oxygen at higher concentrations. All the material and oxygen needs is an ignition source such as an open flame or a static spark and you have an instantaneous fire."
Crews remained on scene to clear the apartment of smoke and assure the flames had not spread to the building. Initial notification of the call came at 1:25 a.m. with crews remaining on scene until 1:56 a.m. In addition to Middlebourne EMS, NMVFD personnel were assisted by the New Martinsville Police Department. The West Virginia Fire Marshal's Office has been notified of the incident.
Ironically, the same man suffered a similar event in December 2011. He was treated and released from West Penn Burn Center after that incident.