Marie Lake: Explosion – Chapter 3 of 11

Written by Harold McNeill on August 25th, 2010. Posted in Family 1940 1965

Stove at Marie Lake

Photo (Web).  A wood cookstove that nearly ended our mothers life.

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Link to Last Post: Link to Growing Up in the Wilderness
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July, 1947

It was one of those quiet, lazy July mornings at Marie Lake. The dead calm waters reflected the morning sun and the leaves on the poplar trees, usually twisting and fluttering in the slightest breeze, hung as if frozen in time. The only noise to be heard was the quiet chatter of a few birds and of the laughter of Louise and me as we Mom before firedredged out wet sand to complete our giant sand castle – to be a surprise for mom and dad.

Suddenly, the serenity of the morning was bluntly ended by a loud, deep ‘whooomp’ coming from the direction of the house. A split second later the silence was further pierced by a blood curdling scream that echoed through the trees and down to the water. Louise and I sat there, momentarily frozen.

With the screams rising in intensity, we jumped up and run towards the house. As we topped the small sand bank we saw mom running with flames and smoke rising from her body. We were stricken with fear at a site we couldn’t fully comprehend.

After a short distance, she fell and rolled in the sand, grass and pine needles covering the yard. We stopped dead in our tracks not knowing what to do. At that moment dad came running from the mink pens. He frantically tried to smother the flames with his jacket but it wasn’t large enough to cover her whole body. Each time he moved the jacket, flames would spring to life.  An eternity passed before the flames were finally extinguished. The nauseating smell of burnt cloth, plastic and flesh permeated the air.

Dad hollered: “Harold, Louise, get a sheet off the bed.”

Suddenly, fearing the house might be on fire, he hollered “stop”, but it was too late as we were already inside. Fortunately there was no fire and only acrid smoke filled house. We frantically pulled a sheet from the bed and ran back to dad and mom.

When we returned mom had stopped screaming. She was lying on the ground moaning and crying, pleading for dad to help. Most of her outer clothes had been burned off and her arms and legs were a mass of burned flesh mixed with sand, grass, leaves and needles. On her legs small red lines weaved in and out of the burned flesh.

Dad sent us to sit by the house while he tried to comfort mom and wrap her in the sheet. Mr. Johnson had gone to town and Mr. Goodrich was on his trap line so we sat alone on the back porch hugging each other and crying. We were certain our mother was going to die.

Suddenly dad called:  “Harold, take your sister, get the boat ready, we have to get your mother to the hospital.”

We ran down to the dock and I jumped in the boat.  I started the engine and waited while dad carried mom to the boat.  He stepped in and held her while Louise untied the mooring rope, jumped in and pushed off.  Mom was now quietly moaning and it was evident she was in tremendous pain.

Twenty minutes later at a neighbouring farm house, others came to help. Louise and I stayed behind while a neighbour drove and dad sat in the back holding mom and comforting her as best he could.

It was a torturous, twenty-five mile drive around the lake on dirt roads that were narrow, rough and winding. One three mile section of swamp near English Bay was covered in corduroy where every bump and jolt caused mom to moan in agony.

Around mid-afternoon they arrived at the John Neil Hospital where she was attended to my Dr. Savage and the nursing staff. It was far from certain as to whether they could save her life.

Mom was always very emotional when she later talked of the accident:

“I was burned very badly on my legs and arms, but by some miracle, my face was spared. Dr. Savage and the nurses were puzzled by the long strings of red plastic burned into the flesh on my legs. It turned out to be part of the plastic apron that had burned and melted into my flesh. Only the heavy red trim remained visible.

A big challenge that faced Dr. Savage and the nurses was cleaning the burns. Not only was the plastic stuck to the burnt skin, when I ran out of the house and started rolling, all the sand, grass and needles stuck to the plastic and burned flesh. All this now needed to be cleaned before the burns could begin to heal. Keeping the wounds open increased the danger of infection. 

They kept me heavily sedated for the first week or so and I don’t remember much of that time. Later I went through some pretty tough times but it was a small price to pay – I was alive and I was going to see my family again.”

For the first week Louise and I stayed at Marie Lake while dad stayed at the hospital with mom. As soon as she was taken off the critical list dad returned and took us over to stay with Aunt Liz and Uncle Warren. He said that he would be back in a few days to take us to the hospital to see mom. He then returned to Marie Lake to catch up on his work.

Cook StoveMom told us how the accident had happened:

“I had been working getting the garden ready for spring planting while the two of you played on the beach. About 10:00 am I went in to make coffee. To speed things up starting the fire I poured some kerosene on the kindling. I guess there must have been some hot coals left from the breakfast fire, so when I lit the match the whole thing exploded. I still don’t know why my face and eyes were not burned.

It was also lucky the house didn’t burn down as your dad told me the explosion had blown the lids off the stove and singed the curtains. If they had caught fire the rest of the house would surely have burned. You know something else? Every since that day I have never, ever tired to light a fire with kerosene.” 

For the rest of her life mom bore heavy scars on her legs and arms and had to be careful when in the sun.

There was a touching side story about her healing process. One evening as mom was going crazy with the itch on her legs, our dog, Shep, came up beside her, sat down and started to lick her leg. She said the dogs tongue was just rough enough to stop the itch. He was very gentle and mom figured if a dog would lick his wounds to help them heal, it was unlikely to hurt her legs. Mom was even convinced it helped the healing process – that and her favourite treatment for every burn, bite, bruise, cut, scrape or other injury that any of us ever suffered – Gentian Violet! The poor dog had a purple tongue for weeks.

Before long, mom was functioning at full speed. It was hard to believe that just a couple of months earlier the situation had looked so bleak. Our lives were back on track for many great new adventures at Marie Lake. In the not to distance future we would face another family crisis only this time it would be dad’s life hanging in the balance.

Harold McNeill
Parksville, BC

Link to Next Post:  Link to Easy Come, Easy Go
Link to Last Post: Link to Growing Up in the Wilderness
Link to Family Stories Index

Car stuck in mud

Photo: This photo, taken from the web, of an old car stuck in the mud is very typical of the situation we faced when driving to Cold Lake around English Bay.  There was one spot, just beyond the current beach area, where the road neared the lake. It seemed it was always one large mud hole.  There was a very good family photo of digging the car out on one trip but the photo is no longer in the files. 




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