Matt Jones

A Mishap

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You're sitting at a table in a restaurant and the waiter, placing a dinner plate in front of you, says ‘This plate is very hot sir/madam, be careful’. As soon as the waiter leaves, you touch the plate. You know it's hot, you know you might burn yourself, but you give it a quick tap anyway, just to check how intense the heat really is. Despite our highly evolved brains, we humans are stupid; we take risks like this all the time and unfortunately, the consequences can be worse than a brief feeling of heat on the fingertips. What follows is a similar story of stupidity on my part and while you can rest assured that your narrator is well on the way to recovery, be warned that it's a bit nasty in places.

I was on my way to an early morning meeting with a client. The morning traffic was at a stand-still, and I was sitting in my car; engine idling…. brain idling. It was then that I noticed steam billowing up from beneath the bonnet; I looked down at the temperature gauge on the dash to see that the needle had gone past the red ‘danger’ mark. I pulled the car over, the wheels straddling the kerb as the rush hour traffic passed me by. It was clear that the engine's cooling fan had stopped working; a result of either a broken motor, a blown fuse or some other less obvious electrical problem. After letting the engine cool a little, I drove it home, and there it sat for the better part of a week before I got time to work out what I was going to do about it. Deciding that I'd have a go at fixing it myself, the following Saturday, I dug out my socket set and SAAB 99 Haynes Manual and lifted the bonnet. After reading the chapter about the engine's cooling system - in particular the bit about the thermostatic switch that activates the cooling fan - I examined the switch to see that one of its electrical terminals had completely corroded, thus breaking the circuit and causing the fan to cease working. So, in the end, it was an easy fix; I replaced the switch with a new one and the fan worked again. Now, the fact that the problem was easily rectified doesn't mean I was any less proud of fixing the car myself. I'm far from practical-minded when it comes to this sort of thing, and when I could hear that fan kicking in whilst driving around later that evening, a grin of satisfaction appeared on my face.

I wish I could say that this was the end of my story, but alas, it does not end there. The next day, the engine began to overheat again; yes, the fan had stopped working once more. Perplexed, I opened the bonnet and stood staring for a while; the shiny new themostatic switch beaming out from the oily grime of the engine bay. It occured to me that as I replaced the switch the previous day, the radiator was briefly unplugged, allowing water to gush out for a few seconds. I thought nothing of this at the time, but then I realised that this could have created an air block in the system, causing the thermostatic switch to be temporarily out of the water, which would in turn stop the fan from working. I moved round to the water expansion tank [the compartment used to refill the water] for a closer look. Now at this stage, you may want to recall [or even re-read] the first paragraph of this story, because ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived at the stupid nasty bit.

I decided to open the water expansion tank. A harmless, benign looking plastic tank which, at this particular moment in time, contained harmful, hot, high pressure water. I was fully aware of these facts; the engine had been running and heating up for some time and I knew the potential danger involved in unscrewing the cap. Past experience told me that these caps allow a certain amount of pressure out before they open fully; give it half a turn and steam should start to billow out, releasing the pressure so that the tank can be opened safely. I gave the cap half a turn… nothing. I turned it a little bit m… BOOM!

Oh yes, I released the pressure alright. In the time it takes Linford Christie to run a 100 millimetres, I was drenched in very VERY hot water. Thankfully, I somehow managed to avoid getting burned really badly; I suffered second degree [moderate] burns to my arm and 1st degree [mild] burns to the left side of my face and chest. My face and chest sorted themselves out within a matter of days, although the bandage on my arm only came off today, after two weeks of visiting the burns unit of Royal Victoria Infirmary.

A tale of absolute stupidity has been told. I can't explain my actions; I can only attribute it to a momentary and complete loss off common sense which I'm sure afflicts us all. Accidents happen, so please, be careful out there.