Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Suicide Bombers

This news item appeared in the local paper in 2001:

HILLSDALE, N.Y. (April 18, 2001) -- A 38-year-old garage owner was killed and a 19-year-old employee injured March 27 when a steel radial truck tire they were inflating exploded in a possible "zipper" rupture, leaving a 23-inch gash in the tire’s sidewall.

George R. Stalker Sr., owner of George’s Auto & Truck Repair on Route 22 in Hillsdale, died en route to a nearby hospital after being struck in the chest and abdomen by the blast. An employee, John Zigon, who along with Mr. Stalker’s son, George Jr., was helping to inflate the tire, also suffered injuries to the face and leg but later was released from the hospital.

George Stalker Jr. said the explosion "sounded like a bomb" going off. He said air from the blast hurled Mr. Stalker from five to eight feet.

And this one in 2004:

On October 16, 2003, a 42-year-old male laborer (the victim) was fatally injured while inflating a front-end loader's tire mounted on a multi-piece rim. The loader's front left tire had gone completely flat preventing the loader from being moved out of the garage location where it was parked. The victim was sitting in a chair approximately 12 inches from the tire's sidewall while inflating the tire when increased air pressure caused the tire tube to explode. The explosion knocked the victim backwards. A tractor-trailer driver, waiting to access the garage, heard the explosion, found the victim on the ground, and informed the company of the incident.

I could probably find dozens of examples of this type of accident if I wanted to look for them. It might be a little dramatic to say that it happens all the time, but it happens often enough. After all, there are tire assassins hiding under every vehicle. Death by any means is never a good thing, but death by tire is particularly heinous.

Inner tubes always seemed so harmless. We played with them in the swimming pool. We floated on them. We dove through them. They were easier to sit on than old used tires for tire swings. James, my neighbor friend across the street even had a giant tractor inner tube that we could sit in and be rolled around the yard. In the winter we would go up to the snow and slide down the hill on them. These things were all great fun. There was no malice in inner tubes. Yet, when confined inside a tire, they became surly.

I was almost a mile from my elementary school and just under two miles from my junior high. We lived just close enough to avoid school bus coverage and just far enough away to dissuade us from walking any more often than we absolutely had to. (Although, there was a great taco stand on the foot route home from junior high. If your energy was flagging at the half way mark, you just might stop and buy a couple of taquitos for a quarter.) At the beginning of the sixth grade for my eleventh birthday, I received a deep metallic blue Italian ten speed bicycle, a considerable upgrade to my red, garage sale one speed that I had ridden for the previous couple of years. It was important to be equipped with the most modern of bicycles if one lived where I lived.

My parents were disinclined to drive us to school because it wasn’t particularly convenient, nor particularly necessary. Despite the horror stories we hear about in the news today, the late fifties and early sixties were still reflecting the innocence of their times. I was walking to school, or riding my bike by the second grade. Kids weren’t being assaulted on the street by all manner of rapists and pedophiles as is apparently happening in every city in America everyday by all accounts. Today’s parents think that they are fulfilling their parental duties and protecting their children by arranging car pools and driving them down the block to their schools. Car pools and the Gym are today’s equivalent to yesterday’s bridge parties and barbeques; the neighborhood social outlet.

My blue ten speed itself was a veritable playground. At the tender age of eleven I was just awakening to the world of model cars, erector sets and all things mechanical. It was fun to fiddle with the levers and twist the nuts on and off under the guise of being thorough in my cleaning. I practiced with my dad’s tools and dismantled that bike a couple of times over the course of the year. It probably didn’t need to be quite so clean. The bearings probably didn’t need to be repacked more than once a year. I probably didn’t need to spend every Saturday morning twiddling the spoke wrench to make my wheels perfectly straight. (Although, I have discovered in my own son, that what appears to be straight to an eleven year old, may not quite hold true to the practiced eye.)

It was a fine summer’s day. The morning chores were finished up with the lawn mowing while there was still some cool to the day. Lunch had been served. The sun was bright, the skies clear, a perfect day for a ride. Who knows where? There are no bad destinations when you’re eleven. The pavement beckoned. To have the wind in my face and nothing else to do until my stomach told me it was hungry again was just about the most perfect feeling there was.

I set up my tools and my bike in the front yard under the shade of our big Modesto Ash and proceeded to tweak and twiddle until I had achieved the perfect level of “tune.” The only thing left was to walk my bike down to the corner gas station to top off the tires and then I would be on my way. This was not an uncommon task for me. I frequently filled my tires at this station. They had a gas pump and service island off to the side of the garage where there was little auto traffic. It was normally a simple process to unscrew the valve cover, and apply the air hose. The most trouble I had ever had was finding the valve cover after I set it down.

I was eager to try out a tire gage I found in Dad’s tool box. “Feel” worked pretty well most of the time because rarely did I have a tire gage at my disposal. I was not going to rely just on “feel” this time. I put a little air in the tire until it felt rock hard…what I guessed was about 85 or 90 pounds of pressure -- as was printed on the outside of the tire. It may have been a little more firm than usual, but I would know in a minute after I checked it with the gage. The gage was lying on the payment behind me and I turned to pick it up. That’s when the attempt on my life was made.

The tire blew. I was squatting on the pavement, twisted around to pick the tire gage when the explosion occurred. My back was to the tire and the percussion knocked me off balance. My ears rang, and all around me was silence. I picked myself up to survey the damage…and, of course, looked around to see if anyone was paying attention to my supremely embarrassing moment. Eleven year olds only like calling attention to themselves in what they consider controlled moments. This was not one of those.

I was stunned. I could not hear anything. My tire was a shredded mess. I checked my fingers to make sure they were all there. I looked for blood. There was none. All clear. I continued to look for people to come to my rescue, but there was nobody interested. There was a guy in the open door of the tire shop across the street who glanced up from his work long enough to see me standing up on my own, then he went back to work. The gas station attendant was just laughing to himself. I observed these two men in total silence; cars passed on the street, but there was no sound.

I picked up my tire gage and rolled my bike back to the shade of that Modesto Ash. With every step, my hearing started to return with the sounds of the day. First a rush of white noise, then every sound began to sharpen up and finally returned to normal. I kept checking my fingers. I had just let go of that tire to find the tire gage. My face had been within inches. If I had rolled the wheel down the block by itself instead of the whole bicycle, I would have been straddling the tire while I was working on it. All these gory possibilities played again and again in my thoughts. I dropped the tire gage in the tool box and decided that I would have to test it out on another day. Perhaps today was not the best day for a bike ride after all.

The old adage goes, “Timing is everything.” This is as true in life as in murder attempts. If that sad tube had waited until I was well down the road, flying on the shadows of the afternoon sun, it could have thrown me from my bike onto unforgiving payment with an uncertain outcome. If its weakness had been slightly more pronounced, it could have exploded a second earlier and blown my fingers off or my eyes out of their sockets. It could have done worse as the news stories will attest. My story could have been added to the litany of tire homicides, but my tire missed and simply didn’t have the guts for another try.

© 2007 Mark Indermill - All Rights Reserved

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