The Burn

In this post, I'm going to answer a question that you've been meaning to ask me for a while: "What's that thing on your left arm?"

On December 13, 2003, I received second- and third-degree burns on my left arm.

I was a freshman at MIT, living (illegally) at Tau Epsilon Phi. I was working on a 6.001 programming project, and was about 3 lines of code away from completing the project. I decided to take a walk, use the restroom, get some food, and wander up to the 4th floor, where there was a commotion as a result of pepole having fun.

On the fourth floor, I discovered what people were watching. Mark Tobenkin, the other freshman at TEP, was demonstrating a neat phenomenon that he learned from the residents of the Third East hall at the East Campus dorm: a coffee can fire tornado. Here's how you make one (don't try this at home): take an old coffee can, cut vertical slits from the top of the can from the top to 1" from the bottom at 0 and 180 degrees, and fill the can with 1/2" of isopropanol. Stand back, drop a match in, and watch. The can's slits will draw air in tangentially to the can, creating a spiral of fire. It's quite cool, and remarkably safe.

Mark's error was procedural carelessness. As the fire kept going, and consumed its fuel, it began to die down. Instead of letting the fire extinguish itself, he decided to pour more isopropanol in. He became more amused every time he poured more fuel in.

The fourth time that Mark poured more isopropanol into the fire, I found myself wrapped in a ball of flames. I was sitting across the floor from the can and from Mark. I raised my left arm to shield my face.

Within 4 seconds, I realized that my arm had caught fire. Another TEP, Jesse, was running around, as has legs had caught fire. I kept my calm. I rolled on the floor, and yelled at otherwise panicking people to throw a blanket on me to extinguish the flame. Once the fire was out, I grabbed the fire extinguisher, put out the trash can that had caught fire, and started running cold water over my arm. In retrospect, I didn't run nearly enough cold water over my arm.

I'm excellent at handling emergencies. I lived through the September 11th attacks, which took place three blocks from my high school on a sunny summer Tuesday. I keep my calm and stay pragmatic. If you're cycling across the country this summer, bear this in mind.

In about 20 minutes, I was at Mass General Hospital, receiving care for the burn. Jesse's burns were deemed worse than mine, so he received a skin graft immediately and was out of the hospital in 7 days. The doctors decided to wait a week before giving me a skin graft, so I missed all of my finals, and Christmas, and stayed in the hospital for 18 days.

The burn, and the associated cleaning and scrubbing of the burn. was the most painful thing I've ever experienced. A second-degree burn is by definition the most painful thing you can feel, as third-degree burns entail nerve damage and are less painful. In addition, the smell of burning flesh and seared hair was the most foul odor I've encountered.

This notorious story made the papers back in 2003. http://archive.seacoastonline.com/2003news/12152003/south_of/b.htm. As usual, the slime at the Associated Press didn't check their facts properly. I was in no way responsible for this accident, though it's my own fault that I didn't leave, or tell Mark to stop being unsafe with fire.

I have mixed feelings about making this a blog post. There are some aspects of this story that I'd like to forget or keep secret, but at the same time, posting it here means I won't have to continue repeating it or awkwardly avoiding the question.