MIchael Hubbard at Peconic Bay Medical Center Skilled Nursing Facility in December 2017. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Eight years ago this evening, a 14-year-old Riverhead boy’s life effectively ended in the fireball of an exploding “gel candle” — a decorative ceramic pot designed to burn pourable, aromatic citronella gel fuel.

Riverhead High School freshman Michael Hubbard, the only child of lifelong Riverhead resident Nancy Reyer, suffered third-degree burns over 40 percent of his body when a fireball erupted from a ceramic pot several feet away, slathering his torso and face with with burning gel fuel.

Michael, his mom and their family have endured a nightmare for the 2,920 days that followed. It is slowly, painfully coming to its inevitable conclusion, as Reyer keeps vigil at the bedside of her dying son.

After eight long, grueling years, Michael’s body is giving out. He suffered severe seizures three weeks ago that were too much for his body to handle.

Michael, now 22, has lived with debilitating brain injury since nine days after he was rushed to the burn unit at Stony Brook University Hospital — when his heart stopped beating and was deprived of blood and oxygen for 13 minutes. Doctors brought him back to life, but the damage to his brain was devastating and permanent. He would spend the rest of his life bedridden and nonverbal, nourished by a feeding tube.

2013 0528 hubbard reyer file
Nancy Reyer at her son’s bedside in Stony Book University Hospital in 2011.
RiverheadLOCAL file photo

Doctors told his mother he would remain in a vegetative stage for the rest of his life. But he recovered more than expected and, though he would never talk or walk or stand on his own again, Michael recovered enough to breathe without a ventilator and regain consciousness. He’s been hospitalized since the injury and has spent the last six years in the Peconic Bay Medical Center skilled nursing facility, where he was transferred after more than 18 months at Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Westchester.

The weeks turned to months and months turned to years. Michael grew from a chubby boy with an angelic face, into a tall, lean, handsome young man. His voice changed, his laugh deepened. His face matured, his jaw grew strong. His skin grafts healed.

Michael Hubbard on May 27, 2011
Michael Hubbard at his aunt and uncle’s wedding reception on May 27, 2011, the day before tragedy struck. Courtesy photo.

Reyer has spent nearly all of the last 2,920 days at her son’s bedside or taking him for walks in his wheelchair. She bought a specially equipped van so she could drive Michael places. The first and only time she got to take him for a ride was on Easter Sunday, when she took him to Mass at St. John’s, where he served as an altar boy before tragedy struck on Saturday, May 28, 2011.

He and his cousin Kris Smalls were setting up a backyard party at the home on Rabbit Run shared by their moms, sisters Nancy and Fran Reyer. It was Memorial Day weekend and Michael’s Aunt Fran had married Curtis Johnson the day before. The family celebration would continue.

Kris added citronella “FireGel” to one of the ceramic fire pots placed on tables around the yard to keep away mosquitos. When Kris poured the gel, it ignited and exploded, shooting flaming gel several feet away, covering Michael’s face and upper body.

With his clothing and skin covered in flaming gel, Michael remembered the lesson of “stop, drop and roll” — but the flaming gel stuck to his skin and continued to burn. His mother and family members worked furiously to put out the flames. The Reyers’ next-door neighbor, Pastor Jerry Halpin heard screaming and ran to help.

Michael, a devout Catholic, crossed himself and asked God to please take away his pain. That would be the last sentence Michael ever spoke.

Michael wasn’t the first — nor the last — person injured by the exploding pourable gel fuel.

The ethanol-based fuel gels distributed by Georgia-based Napa Home & Garden Inc. and sold throughout the country at Bed Bath and Beyond stores, injured at least 86 people in the U.S., many critically — 34 victims were hospitalized with second and third degree burns of the face, chest, hands, arms or legs. Two people died as a result of injuries in a span of about 15 months in 2010-2011.

The fuel gels burn something like the fuel in a Sterno — the small metal cups commonly used to keep food warm at parties. There’s no wick. The fuel itself ignites. It’s very clean-burning and it’s very hard to tell whether it’s lit. It’s also highly flammable. When the ethanol gel fuel is poured on a pot that’s lit or still hot, flames erupt and burning fuel is splattered — up to several feet away from the container. Witnesses say flaming gel sticks to the victim’s skin and is nearly impossible to extinguish. Some have likened it to napalm.

Napa Home & Garden cofounder K.C. Cunningham on the cover of a company marketing publication.

In June 2011, two weeks after Michael’s injury, Napa Home & Garden voluntarily pulled the product off retail shelves. Napa’s husband-and-wife owners, Jerry and K.C. Cunningham, said in a statement issued by a crisis management public relations firm that they were “traumatized” by reports of the injuries.

A month later, the company filed for bankruptcy. The Cunninghams sold their company’s assets — minus the “Fire Pot” and “FireGel” lines — to a big corporation a month after the bankruptcy filing, with the approval of the bankruptcy court. The $1.1 million sale proceeds, plus insurance money, established a $15 million pot of funds to compensate the 75 burn victims who applied to the court for compensation. (Michael’s lawyer opted not to participate in the settlement and sued retailer Bed Bath & Beyond instead.)

The summer of 2011 was “a tumultuous summer” for the company, but “Napa Home & Garden has landed on its feet,” according to a November 2011 article in Casual Living magazine.

“We were in and out of court in 60 days,” crowed cofounder and CEO Jerry Cunningham. It all “worked out,” he said.

In January 2013, the Cunninghams were able to buy back their company — free from liability for the fire pot injuries — and continue in their business, which they maintain to this day, wholesaling mostly imported products through retailers nationwide, including Bed, Bath & Beyond, Amazon and Wayfair.

For the Cunninghams, “traumatized” or not, life went on.

For Michael and other victims of the exploding fire pots sold by Napa, things didn’t work out as well.

The fire pot and fuel gel were “so dangerous and were so defectively designed that their misuse was foreseeable,” a New York State appeals court ruled in November 2017. The court held retailer Bed Bath & Beyond was liable for Michael’s resulting injuries.

No court ruling will give Michael Hubbard back the life that was stolen from him on this night eight years ago.

Nothing will take away the pain and suffering his mother has lived with these past eight years. Time will not heal her wounds.

“I am mourning for a second time now,” Reyer said. “I lost my son for the first time eight years ago.”

And the other child who was injured that night, psychologically and emotionally, was Michael’s cousin Kris — a boy who was a brother to Michael, living and growing up in the same household. Kris has come of age bearing the weight of a heavy burden. He was adding pourable fuel to the “fire pot” when it exploded that night. Despite the emotional scars he suffered because of the “dangerous” and “defectively designed” Napa product, Kris, 23, has just graduated from college with a degree in business and is planning to get a master’s degree in social work.

Kris has been taking turns with other family members as they keep Nancy Reyer company at her son’s bedside. On May 7, when doctors told Reyer they couldn’t do anything more for Michael besides try to keep him comfortable, they told her it wouldn’t be long. Michael has again defied doctors’ predictions, though, and a few days have turned into a few weeks.

Still, his mother faithfully keeps a bedside vigil “waiting for him to go home.”

“Michael is starting transition now — it’s just a matter of time,” she said today.

“God gave me eight years to prepare for this day, but you’re never ready,” Reyer said.

“The love from everyone is holding me together.”

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.