Ten years ago today, the 14-year-old child pictured above had his future stolen from him by a deadly product that should not have been on the market.
On Saturday, May 28, 2011, Michael Hubbard was in his aunt’s Riverhead backyard, helping his mom, Nancy Reyer, set up for a party that was to take place the following day. It was a very happy Memorial Day weekend for the Reyer clan. Nancy’s sister, Fran, had been married the day before to Curtis Johnson, and the family celebrated the wedding at Eagle’s Landing at Calverton Links. This picture of Michael was taken at the wedding reception.
To ward off mosquitoes that evening, they lit citronella “Fireburners” that Fran had purchased at Bed Bath & Beyond on Route 58.
Kris attempted to refill one of the ceramic containers with the pourable “gel fuel” sold with it.
The ethanol fuel burns 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. When 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.
This happened to at least 86 people in the U.S. in the time between the first sale of the “Fireburners” in 2010 and when the last of them were recalled in the months following Michael’s “accident.”
Before the gel fuel explosion that left Michael with third-degree burns over 40% of his body on May 28, 2011, many people had already been critically injured by this dangerous product. One person had even died. Many more would be critically injured and at least one more person was killed after that fateful day and before they were pulled from store shelves.
When the flaming gel coated Michael’s torso, neck and chin, he did was he had been told to do since he was a young child: stop, drop and roll. But the flaming gel, which some have compared to Napalm, just kept burning. His mother, screaming for help, attempted to put the flames out with her bare hands. A neighbor, Pastor Jerry Halpin, heard Nancy’s screams and rushed to help.
Michael crossed himself and asked God to take away the pain. Those were the last words his mother heard him say.
About a week after he was so severely burned, Michael’s organs began to shut down as he lay in his hospital bed in the intensive care unit at Stony Brook University Hospital. He went into cardiac arrest and died — only to be revived again by doctors. His brain was deprived of oxygen for the 13 minutes during which his heart wasn’t beating. He suffered irreversible brain injury because of it and would never walk or talk again.
Though his face was almost always lit up with a smile, make no mistake, Michael, confined to a wheelchair, lived through eight years of anguish and suffering that included multiple skin graft surgeries and nourishment through a feeding tube. He passed away at age 22 on June 21, 2019 at the Skilled Nursing Facility at Peconic Bay Medical Center, where he had spent the last six years of his young life.
This didn’t have to happen to Michael. The number of injuries, critical injuries, and even one death, caused by this product before the tragedy that befell Michael and his family on May 28, 2011 provided enough notice to the people who are charged with paying attention to these things and protecting the public. But the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission dragged its feet on issuing a recall until it was too late for Michael and nearly another hundred people.
For their part, the people who made money from distributing the product, the owners of a company called Napa Home and Garden Inc., didn’t show much caring for the people it burned, maimed or killed.
Jerry and KC Cunningham, husband-and-wife owners of Napa Home and Garden, hired a crisis management specialist in June of 2011 to let the world know they were “traumatized” by what happened to Michael and that they were taking steps to make sure no one else was injured.
Those steps included Napa filing for bankruptcy on July 5, 2011, to limit their legal and financial exposure in numerous lawsuits they were sure to face.
A few months later, Jerry Cunningham told “Casual Living” magazine he decided to file a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition in order to consummate the sale of Napa to a willing buyer, Teters Floral Products. In August of 2011, Teters bought everything — except the fire pot products — for $1.1 million. And the Cunninghams were hired to run the Napa division of Teters Floral Products.
“We were in and out of court in 60 days,” Jerry Cunningham boasted to the magazine. “That was the choice I made – to find a way to consummate the sale. I thought this was the way to stay in business, and fortunately, it worked out.”
It “worked out” especially well for the Cunninghams, who were able to buy back their company from Teters in January 2013. They got their company back and escaped liability for two deaths and more than 85 injuries, some of them, like Michael’s, devastating and life-changing.
The Cunninghams overcame being “traumatized” quickly enough to engineer their company’s sale and file for bankruptcy within a few months and retain their livelihood — at the same time escaping liability for the injuries caused by their products.
Michael, Nancy and the rest of the family will never overcome the trauma they suffered because of Napa’s deadly “Fireburners.”
The Riverhead community rallied around the family to provide moral and financial support as they navigated the medical odyssey that followed Michael’s injuries. The love poured forth. People organized fundraisers. Andy Mitchell, Peconic Bay Medical Center president and CEO, promised Nancy Michael would have a home at the skilled nursing facility as long as he would need it. The Riverhead ambulance crew that rushed Michael to Stony Brook that night a decade ago visited him regularly — at Stony Brook, at Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Valhalla and at PBMC. The community response was heartwarming.
But nothing would bring back what was stolen from Michael — and his mom — on this day in 2011.
There would be no justice for Michael. Red tape and ineffective bureaucracy allowed government regulators to neglect their mission and fail to protect those who fell victim to Napa’s “Fireburners.” Napa could have voluntarily recalled the products long before Michael’s injury. (By then there were at least two dozen similar injuries and one death.) And our legal system allows people like the Cunninghams to maneuver their way out of responsibility, dust themselves off, start over — and brag about it.
Jerry Cunningham died on June 19, 2019 — ironically, two days before Michael. Cunningham was 76 and had lived a long, presumably satisfying life. From his obituary, I learned he was a graduate of Harvard Law School and once prosecuted financial crimes for the Securities and Exchange Commission. He later worked as counsel to a large insurance company. Cunningham knew the ropes.
“With incredible foresight and keen business acumen, Cunningham directed Napa through difficult legal battles in 2011,” his obituary said. No mention of being “traumatized” by what led to those “difficult legal battles,” though.
It continues: “Though he left this world too soon, he left having achieved everything he wanted to do.”
If only the same could be said for Michael.
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