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Flaming beach rock victim has undergone two skin-graft surgeries

May 19, 2012 |  7:47 am
Rocks picked up on San Onofre State Beach that later ignited inside a woman's pocket, leaving her with severe burns. Credit: Orange County Health Care Agency

The woman recovering from second- and third-degree burns after rocks she picked up at San Onofre State Beach ignited in her pocket said she feels grateful to be alive and expressed thanks to all those who helped her.

She said she has undergone two painful surgeries to have skin grafts to her injured leg.

"We know bad things happen to many people," Lyn Hiner told the Orange County Register. "I'm thankful God carried us through this. That Jason, the deputy, the firefighters and the doctors, the hospital staff and our friends and family have all been with us. I know there are patients here that are going through a lot more than I am. I'm grateful it wasn't the girls and that it didn't happen on the freeway on our drive home."

She is also describing the freak incident.

"We were talking about who was going to pick up the babysitter," Lyn Hiner told ABC's "Good Morning America" in an interview from her hospital bed. "And all of a sudden something hot on my leg just sort of started to bother me, so I started thinking it was a bug bite so I started slapping it and the next thing I know my pants were on fire."

When the rocks fell to the floor of her San Clemente house, they continued to burn the wood, she said. Her husband's hands were also burned as he tried to help her, and the "rocks were still smoking when firefighters took them to the hospital," Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Marc Stone said.

Authorities from the county health agency said two of the rocks contained a "phosphorus substance," a chemical element that can be highly flammable.

Rob Hiner, who appeared on the show alongside his wife, described the fire as a "bright, intense flame."

Fire authorities responded to smoke alarms in the couple's home set off because the flames were so intense. "There were actual flames coming off of her cargo shorts," Stone told ABC News. "The husband was outside with a garden hose, actually trying to cool her leg down."

The Orange County Health Care Agency examined the two rocks and sent them on to a state laboratory for further testing, said Tricia Landquist, an agency spokeswoman.

Scientists have told The Times that they are puzzled by the mysterious fire and have never seen anything like it.

"It's pretty implausible," said Larry Overman, a professor of chemistry at UC Irvine. "I can't think of a scenario of chemicals on the beach that would have the properties that are described."

Andrew Borovik, also a chemistry professor at UC Irvine, had similar doubts. He said that phosphorus, which after processing is typically kept in a controlled setting and stored in water -- could indeed ignite when air touches it. But he was unsure how the phosphorous substance could be part of a rock.

"I don't know if it exists just sitting around on the beach," Borovik said. "It just seems unlikely."


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Photo: Rocks picked up on San Onofre State Beach that later ignited inside a woman's pocket, leaving her with severe burns. Credit: Orange County Health Care Agency