ST. PAUL, Minn. - If anyone knew her way around a kitchen, it was Wille Mae Coleman. No one could count the number of times she'd fried chicken for supper. Then last August, alone at the stove in her apartment, the 75-year-old grandmother died doing it.
"I vividly remember getting the phone call," says her son Don Coleman, somberly. "Very difficult, that's my mother." Wille Mae suffered serious burns on 70 percent of her body. He was with his mother at Regions Hospital when she died.
"I remember what she smelled like, I remember what she looked like, and that's no vision that any child wants to remember of their parents."
Kitchen fires happen every day in Minnesota. Cooking is the leading cause of the state's residential fires, more than heating, candles, smoking and arson combined.
With that statistic, KARE 11 enlisted the help of the volunteer fire departments in Green Isle and Arlington, borrowed a house slated for demolition, and sought the expertise of one of Minnesota's most respected fire investigators, Jamie Novak of the St. Paul Fire Department.
"I've seen it morning, I've seen it late night after the bars close, somebody comes home and decides they've got the munchies for French fries," says Novak.
Cooking oil does us a favor, it smokes to give us a warning as it approaches its auto-ignition point of roughly 750 degrees Fahrenheit.
With a "poof" a cup of oil being heated in a pan by Novak suddenly bursts into flames. He has investigated the aftermath of fires like this many times. "Number one problem, people think if they have a grease fire like this is 'I'll just grab it and run it over to the sink.'"
That's exactly what Wille Mae did, according to fire investigators, and in moving her pan, she set her clothes on fire. First responders found her burned and suffering on the floor. Her frying pan somehow wound up in the living room, flung, perhaps, as she fell.
"It's just an instinctive thing to grab that pot," says her son. But don't do it, Novak cautions. Never grab a burning pan.
The alternative is simple and remarkably effective. "All you need to do on a fire like this is grab an oven mitt and a tight fitting cover, slide (the cover) right over the side and turn the stove off and leave it for ten to 20 minutes. Because if you don't, you take that cover off and it starts right back up."
If there is no cover close by, Novak says to grab a cookie sheet or pizza pan. Hold it down with an oven mitt, turn off the stove, and feel blessed you've avoided an even bigger mistake.
Wille Mae never made it to the sink with that burning pan of grease, but the water was still running when firefighters arrived. Water is the worst choice anyone could make when trying to put out a grease fire.
From 12 feet away, Novak pours the water into the burning oil. A wave of flames instantly splashes over the stove, up the kitchen wall and across the ceiling. Enough heat and flames reach the kitchen's back wall to burn the curtains off the windows.
"One cup of water turns into 1700 cups of steam and blows all that oil out at once," he explains. "If you were there right now we'd be taking you to the hospital, because you would have caught your clothes on fire, you would have had second and third degree burns. That's why people need to know you never, ever, ever, put water on a grease fire."
It's also why Novak says a device, only slightly larger than a tuna can, could be a life-saver in your home.
It was named "Stove Top Fire Stop" by the company that manufactures it. Mounted in pairs above a stove's burners, the device has a fuse that ignites when flames reach the fuse on the bottom side of the canister, dropping fire extinguishing powder to put out the fire.
In Novak's demonstration, the Stove Top Fire Stop works flawlessly, extinguishing a grease fire instantly. "Popped, dropped the dry chemical, and now you as a homeowner is supposed to come in and shut the stove off," explains Novak. Shutting off the stove removes any possibility the fire could reignite.
You may wonder why such a simple, and seemly effective, device isn't found in more homes? The White Bear Lake Fire Department wondered that too. They did something about it.
With the help of federal FEMA grants, firefighters have installed a $50 pair of Stove Top Fire Stops, free of charge, in nearly 3000 residential kitchens. In fact, White Bear Lake now requires the device in rental properties that do not have sprinkler systems.
Chuck Schmidt credits a Stove Top Fire Stop for saving his apartment after he left for a church service with a pot still on the stove. "Completely forgot that I had the stove turned on yet," says the elderly White Bear Lake resident. "It was amazing, I tell you."
Schmidt's is one of five Fire Stop saves since White Bear Lake began installations.
Don Coleman is left to wonder if such a device might have saved his mother. "I wish we would have had it in this case."
Damage to a kitchen can be repaired, but there is no fixing the lingering regrets of a life lost. "I was there for her for a lot or things. I helped my mother," says Don Coleman. But I wasn't there at the end. I didn't get to say goodbye. I didn't get to say goodbye while she was conscious. And that will always bother me."
The Stove Top Fire Stop can be ordered at Lowe's stores in Minnesota at the commercial sales desk. They are $32 through noon on May 2 and $46 after that.