We hear often of people dying, or near death as the result of propane heaters. We might be tempted to question ‘what were they thinking?’ Here is my story of a near tragedy of thirty-four people, twenty-seven of them little girls. Thankfully, we all survived.
The girls were singing at the top of their lungs as the bus bumped over the little used back road. Our Brownie troop had been looking forward to this camping trip all year and the weather looked great. The girls exhausted their musical memory banks several times and the four leaders, and three moms, (including me) had enough of ‘turtles wearing girdles.’
The BIG QUESTION, (are we almost there?) became more frequent and the songs louder. Finally, when our adult nerves were stretched as tight as piano wire, the campground came into sight. What excitement. One large building sat in the clearing but we weren’t there for comfort. We were here to CAMP, in the true scouting fashion, in tents.
The girls were sorted into groups and got busy setting up their tents. The adults found the convenient garbage disposal system with a solid cover to discourage predators. It would easily hold our weekend leftovers. The outhouse was well looked after, and did away with the need to dig latrines – after all, these were Brownies and some concessions could be made for their age. The site, on the edge of a lake was beautiful.
Brown Owl set up the two-way radio (our only link with civilization) and let our families know we had arrived safely. Although it was unlikely we would need it, we had been encouraged to bring it along.
Tents up, we set about doing nature studies and crafts needed to earn camping badges. Meals were exciting out door cooking experiences. Dishes were washed and hung in mesh bags to dry in the fresh air while we hiked a deer trail, recorded wild flowers and birds. We were all weary when we tumbled into our sleeping bags that night and slipped into sleep.
We woke to drizzling rain. This wasn’t on the agenda, but it would be good experience. Maybe we could learn how to start fires with wet wood. Ha! We were thankful for the huge 30 X 50 building, built by one of the social clubs. Tents were dismantled and everything moved inside before the drizzle turned to heavy rain.
Open screens ran horizontally the length of the building, just under the eaves, so we felt like we were outside, but we were dry. Meals were prepared in a tiny kitchen. Indoor games and fun filled the day. We settled down that night in rows of sleeping bag, while pouring rain lulled us to sleep. This part of the country never had a lot of rain, so it should stop by morning.
It didn’t. The garbage hole filled with water; the toilet hole filled and began seeping along the ground. Time to pack up and head home. Brown Owl radioed ahead, only to be told the road was washed out. ‘You’re stuck there until we can make other arrangement to get you out.’ We had come prepared for the weekend, would we run out of food?
By bedtime we needed some heat. The decision to light the propane heaters that hung from the ceiling was unanimous. It was more complicated than we expected, so only one heater was lit. The heat felt good but the cold wind coming through the screens was negating all the heat. With much effort and co-operation, the plywood shutters were closed. The girls were still buoyed up by the novelty and tomorrow we would be scrounging for activities, but we all went to sleep warm and cozy.
By morning the rain had stopped. Yeah! With lightened hearts we fixed breakfast and were lined up with our bowls ready, when one of the girls fainted. “Oh, she does that sometimes,” another girl stated, but then another girl passed out.
‘I’m sick’ we heard from some of the girls and they were rushed out the door to empty their stomachs on the ground. Then another girl passed out. ‘EVERYONE OUTSIDE,’ barked one of the adults, ‘we’re going for a run.’ Every girl who was mobile was hustled out the door. The ones who had fainted, were quickly carried out into the fresh air, and were soon up and running too.
We opened the shutters and fresh air rushed in to replace the deadly buildup of propane gas. Every adult was in shock at how close we had come to tragedy. If the second heater had been lit, some of these girls would not have lived through the night. Our next radio contact was, ‘We need to get out NOW!’
A Beaver plane, on pontoons, made two trips to fly us out. The first taking out the sick girls, the second with the rest of us and our gear. I know how these things happen. “One small (seemingly necessary) decision at a time. Twenty-seven little girls are grown up, maybe Brownie leaders themselves, and teaching others about camping safety.