By David Castellon, Staff writer
An 11-year-old Tulare boy could spend the next month at University Medical Center in Fresno recovering from burns to most of his body he suffered in a propane explosion at his home Saturday morning.
Although Tony Cabrera still requires breathing and feeding tubes, “as of [Tuesday], he’s breathing on his own,” his mother, Rachel Nunes, said in a phone interview Wednesday from the hospital burn ward, where her son was stable.
“He’s still in a lot of pain, and he still has the burns and the bandages,” she said. “He already went through one surgery, and that was the day he came in. And we don’t know if he’s going to have any more.”
She said Tony, a fourth-grader at Oak Valley Union Elementary School northwest of Tulare, can’t speak because of the tubes down his throat, but he can re-spond to yes and no questions by blinking.
Tony suffered burns to 70 percent of his body, she said.
Tony lives in a rented house on a dairy farm in the 3200 block of North Enterprise Street with his mother, three siblings, his stepfather and his grandmother, Teresa Ogle.
Some time before 6 a.m. Saturday, Ogle said, she smelled something bad in the house and asked Tony to spray some air freshener.
She said Tony’s younger sister and brother, ages 7 and 8, respectively, were already up watching television.
Nunes said she and her husband were asleep in their room and her oldest daughter, Rebecca McClaine, 12, was asleep in her room.
What the family didn’t know was that behind the closed door of the laundry room in the rear of the three-bedroom house, a propane gas valve for a gas dryer was leaking, said Tulare County Fire Battalion Chief Mike Davidson.
“They had an electric dryer,” so the gas valve wasn’t connected to anything and wasn’t capped, which firefighters recommend because even a closed valve can leak, he said.
There’s no telling how long the gas was leaking in the laundry room, which had a gas stove with a pilot light, because propane may not ignite unless conditions are just right, Davidson said.
He said Tony opened the door, and the addition of more air from outside the room or the door pushing the propane around could have created the conditions for ignition. Or vapors from the air freshener could have been ignited by the stove’s pilot light.
Whatever the cause, the propane explosion blew out windows throughout the house and generated a flash fire that engulfed Tony, who was wearing only his underwear, according to his grandmother.
“And then I screamed” as a blast of wind shattered the windows, Ogle said. “The only thing I head was Tony screaming, ‘Momma, Momma, I’m on fire! I’m on fire!’ “
Nunes said Tony’s screams woke his sister Rebecca, who rushed to the kitchen, and saw that “he was on fire, that his hair was on fire” and pushed him outside.
“He said, ‘I’m going to die. I’m going to die,’ and Rebecca said, ‘No you’re not because I’m here with you,’ ” according to Nunes.
Rebecca then sprayed him with water from a garden hose to put out the fire, Nunes said.
Tony was taken by ambulance to the Visalia Municipal Airport, where a medical transport helicopter picked him up and flew him to the Fresno hospital, Ogle said.