A garish newspaper photograph bared the secret fears of thousands of backyard chefs _ a grass-lined suburban street swallowed by a roiling cloud of smoke and orange flame that dwarfs houses, cars and awe-struck bystanders.
The Maryland man whose gas barbecue touched off that nightmare survived his burns, but the spectacular fire left many others wondering: Just how dangerous are these grills, anyway?
As outdoor barbecuing season swings into high gear, it's a question that could save lives.
Fire safety officials say gas grills shouldn't be taken lightly. The explosive potential of the pressurized liquefied petroleum gas tank that fuels a grill is equal to several sticks of dynamite, according to one expert.
The U.S. Fire Administration estimates that 1,900 fires in the United States last year were linked to gas grills. No deaths were reported, but 325 people were injured, and property damage totaled $17.9-million.
"I don't think they should be ignored," said John Ottoson, a senior analyst with the Fire Administration. On the other hand, he said, "We've got bigger problems in fire safety, like smoking and drinking, smoking in bed, and wood stoves."
There are tens of millions of gas grills scattered throughout backyard America. Last year alone, Americans purchased almost 4.3-million, according to the Barbecue Industry Association. More than 35-million have been sold in the last 10 years.
Charcoal grills are still bigger sellers, but they're losing market share steadily to the gas models. The National Propane Gas Association predicts that gas grill sales will increase as more states join California and Colorado in banning charcoal grills as air polluters. Florida has not yet prohibited charcoal cookers.
Ty Lotz, vice president of the association, says that, with proper precautions, "propane grills have proven to be a very safe product. I have a propane grill on my deck, which I use with my children on the deck as well. I can't give a higher endorsement than that."
That's a bad idea, according to the Maryland fire marshal's office, which says grills should not be used on wooden decks or directly adjacent to the house. The farther away the grill is from the house, the less the potential damage.
An engineering analysis of gas grill accidents conducted in the mid-1980s for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and a more recent study by the commission's Directorate for Epidemiology have found common patterns:
Blocked venturi tubes. Spiders and other bugs like to nest in the metal tubes that mix the gas with air and deliver it to the grill box. That blocks the gas flow. The gas finds another way out, ignites and the whole thing goes up in flames. Manufacturers recommend a thorough cleaning of all grill parts _ especially the venturi tubes _ at least once a year.
Gas leaks. The fitting that connects the fuel line to the tank has a tricky thread that tightens counterclockwise. Most people expect right-handed threads. Some make the connection improperly, loosen it by mistake or damage the fitting. To check for leaks, brush on a solution of one part liquid detergent and one part water. Growing bubbles signal a leak. If tightening the fitting doesn't stop it, see a dealer.
Over-filling. Tanks are "full" when the liquefied gas occupies 80 percent of the interior. If a tank is over-filled, added heat from the summer sun or the grill fire can raise its pressure dangerously.
To prevent an explosion, a pressure relief valve will open, but the released gas can ignite and turn the tank into a torch. Have your tank filled by a qualified dealer. Store spare tanks away from the grill.
Finally, officials say, too many grill owners place the grill where it doesn't belong and then try to be heroes when fire does break out.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission says a gas grill being used should be at least 10 feet from any structure and never under any surface that will burn, such as a carport or porch.
The state fire marshal's office discourages heroism.
"Once the grill catches fire, our advice is to get the hell away from it as quickly as possible," said a spokesman.
Then call the fire department.
Grill safety advice
Use gas and other grills away from vehicles, buildings and anything flammable. A good, safe distance is 10 feet, both from walls and from overhanging roofs.
Keep children and pets away from the grill when it's in use.
Use only lighting fluid _ never gasoline _ for charcoal grills.
Don't wear loose clothing.
Don't pour more lighting fluid on a charcoal grill after a fire has been started.
Don't move a grill once it has been ignited.
Don't store gas grills in or near homes or garages but in ventilated metal sheds.
If a grill does explode or burst into flames, don't try to be a hero. Call the fire department.