Janesville82°

Families hope their stories of loved ones who died mixing gas, fire will protect others

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ROCHELLE B. BIRKELO
June 14, 2012
— Robert Sparby, 84, was burning trash in a barrel at his Janesville Township home May 18 when he decided to also burn tree limbs knocked down by a recent storm.

The branches were green, and green wood doesn't burn well.


Sparby's family believes he then made a fatal mistake. They suspect he poured gasoline into an empty soup can and threw it onto the brush to accelerate the fire.


The gasoline vapors exploded.


Sparby suffered third-degree burns to 30 percent of his body—primarily his right arm, leg, chest and neck.


His wife, Beverly, remembers her husband telling her to get his wallet. He needed his driver's license to drive himself to Urgent Care, said Scott Sparby, the couple's son.


During the ride to town, Beverly heard what would be her husband's last words: "It hurts."


Robert was quickly transferred to Mercy Hospital and Trauma Center then flown to University Hospital in Madison.


He died at 9:15 a.m. the next day.


Robert was the second Janesville man to die in eight years after putting gasoline on a fire.


Jake Meek, 49, suffered burns over more than 90 percent of his body early the morning of Dec. 11, 2004. He apparently put gasoline on wood burning in a portable campfire kettle.


When firefighters arrived at his Janesville home, they found a charred, five-gallon gas can. Its bottom was blown out.


Meek died 11 hours later.


Jake's widow, Kathi Meek-Martinez, gave the gas can to the Janesville Fire Department to use in its fire prevention and education classes "so kids can relate that this happened to a real person," she said.


It's what Jake, who was community minded, would have wanted, she said.


Fire Inspector Larry Hainstock uses the dented can to teach students about the dangers of fire and gasoline.


"You can show them the consequence, which is a valuable lesson for them to understand they shouldn't be following the same suit," he said.


Gasoline-related burns account for about 15,000 emergency department visits and about 500 deaths per year, according to the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Protection Association.


"Gasoline should never be used as an accelerant because of the flammability," Hainstock said.


He wants to make sure everybody is aware of the dangers of gasoline and fire.


"It seems like common sense, but a lot of accidents happen because we are comfortable in our surroundings," he said.


"So, I want to remind people. We're human. We make mistakes. But some are irreversible. So, we need to be cautious of things that can take our lives. It's horrible, but it can be prevented," Hainstock said.


The Sparby family and Meek-Martinez said they agreed to talk to The Gazette in hopes that others wouldn't suffer the same loss.


Beverly described her late husband as a stubborn Norwegian who liked to tell stories and Ole and Lena jokes. She knows he wouldn't want such a tragedy to happen to others.


"He used to run his own gas station in Rhinelander in the '50s, so he knew the danger of gasoline," Scott said.


Sparby's daughter Linda Nash knows others have flaunted disaster by using gasoline on fires.


"How many people do what Dad and Jake did and nothing happened?" she said.


Meek-Martinez said many people told her at Jake's funeral that they'd done the same thing.


"So I felt if people really saw the gas (can) and its bottom blown out, they could see what it really does and would remember a real person died because of this gasoline," she said.


Beverly Sparby had one piece of advice for people who consider mixing gasoline and fire: "Don't do it!"



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