The Chimney Sweep Saved My Family's Lives
By Anthony Buccino
He looked at me plainly, trying to put it simply,
We can only think of one thing worse than being awakened at 3 a.m. by a blaring smoke alarm, but would rather not discuss it. The first thing we wanted to do at 3 a.m. was shut off the darned alarm before it awakened the household, but the soot and smoke in the air precluded that.
The first thing we did was see where the smoke was coming from and if there was a fire somewhere in all that smoke. Fortunately, we had slept through the big bang we were told had occurred that knocked the cast iron furnace doors from their hinges and the chimney flue into a space where a rabbit wouldn’t go.
Our 14-year-old Labrador retriever sleeping 10 feet from the furnace must have heard the boom, figured the hunt was over and went back to sleep. Perhaps she thought it was a flashback of sleeping cozily in front of our fireplace and this boom was little more than a log falling and hissing into place safely behind the grate. Who really knows what our old dog was thinking.
It was the pup that took advantage of the house movement and raced up the stairs to circle her chuck wagons in the kitchen. As soon as the back door was opened to the yard, she scooted across the frosty lawn and took cover the farthest corner of the yard. To this day, she has little doggy nightmares as she sleeps in her crate on her back, big paws in the air jerking in rhythm with twitches in her closed eyes. When awake, she gingerly trots past the big bad green monster furnace, as if to say, “You ain’t gonna’ get me!”
It started out rather innocently with the annoying odor that is attached to natural gas. We called the repairman who came at about 11:30 p.m., working here and there, and found a pinhole leak, then declared it fixed and went on his merry way. Assured, we went back to sleep.
So, of course, we were startled by the big boom and the blaring smoke alarms but not entirely surprised after we thought about it for a while. The next crew of gas company workers determined that when the serviceman left after fixing the earlier leak, the something-something was somehow clogged so that the gas fumes built up in the bowels of the furnace and when the thermostat told the pilot to send up heat that December morning, the huge quantities of gas loitering in the boiler exploded the cast iron doors off their hinges and the chimney flue took off like a rocket. All this noise, smoke and such set the smoke alarms blaring at shortly after 3 a.m.
Sometime after 4 a.m., the second repairman had patched things sufficiently for the old furnace to provide heat until the next crew could come and adequately repair it for years of fun-filled service.
The morning crew was thrilled to be working on my furnace. They had two workers and three or four observers. It seems that the gas company had recently provided a course for these technicians on just how to deal with this kind of problem. The crew and observers wanted to see if the classroom theories applied in the basement of reality.
So, the two-man crew spent the better part of the day fitting the flue more securely into the chimney slot, and mortar-patching the doors back onto the old furnace. And the observers were saying through it all that what happened was good, or at least better than the whole house filling with gas before the pilot ignited it. That might be the only other thing worse than being awakened at shortly after 3 a.m. by a blaring smoke alarm.
The technicians and observers all seemed to agree that this furnace in its state of repair could last another 20 years on top of its present 50-plus years.
In short order the family took the early morning surprise in stride. Except for soot in places we didn’t know we had places, and a tedious clean-up, we were back to normal in nearly no time. For peace of mind we test the smoke alarms every week and check the batteries with a meter monthly. You should too. You’ll sleep better for it.
But this rambling tale of the family furnace does not end here. Since the morning our home was aroused by the early morning alarm, the furnace stood as a giant sleeping green monster that could awaken at any time and send us flaming into kingdom come. Pleasant dreams, eh?
Later, I decided to call in a chimney sweep to check our fireplace flue. It was one of those ‘just in case’ calls, not because we use the fireplace a lot, but if we wanted to, I wanted it to have been checked by a professional.
The chimney sweep fellow turned out to be a nice guy named Bob Harris from Skyline Chimney. He had moved here from Michigan and told me all about being a chimney sweep, the different tests and licenses he had to obtain.
It was interesting stuff. Guys like to hear about other lines of work, often mentally comparing it with the line of work presently engaged in. Harris pronounced the fireplace chimney clear but wanted to check the furnace flue, just in case.
He held a lighter front of the flue and looked at me. “Do you see this?”
I thought of the end of rock concerts. “The show’s over?”
But that wasn’t his point. “Do you see the flame is not drawn into your flue? There’s supposed to be a draft sucking the fumes into your flue and out the chimney. You don’t have a draft."
Being a non-professional chimney sweep, I had no idea what he was trying to show me.
He asked if I got headaches when I spent a lot of time in the basement. Of course, I do, I said, how did you know?
He looked at me plainly, trying to put it simply, “Your chimney flue is blocked and your headaches are from carbon monoxide fumes.”
No one could say for certain how long the flue had been almost completely blocked. It might have had something to do with the furnace explosion knocking loose tiles into the shaft, maybe not. Or it could have had something to do with the carcasses Harris cleared out of the chimney.
After the better part of the day, Harris had cleared the loose tiles from the chimney, installed a chimney cap and plugged in the carbon monoxide detector. Before sealing the flue into the chimney, he showed me the lighter trick again. This time, the flame was being sucked into the flue with great force.
He then welcomed us into the “Bob Harris Saved My Family’s Lives Fan Club.” It’s a lifetime membership and you only pay once.
© 1996 by Anthony Buccino
Originally published Aug. 29, 1996, in Worrall Community Newspapers.
Adapted from RAMBLING ROUND Inside and Outside at the Same Time
June, July and August are the best time of the year to have your chimney cleaned.
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New Jersey author Anthony Buccino's stories of the 1960s, transit coverage and other writings earned four Society of Professional Journalists Excellence in Journalism awards.
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