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Patrons Can Suffer Severe Burns at Restaurants

In early June, four diners were burned at a Palm Harbor, Florida restaurant, after a waiter accidentally added too much rum to the bananas foster dish he prepared at the table. Two people were flown to Tampa General Hospital Regional Burn Center for treatment of severe burns.

Employees were quick to grab fire extinguishers and help a woman whose dress caught on fire, resulting in second- and third-degree burns. “It’s going to be a long time for her to heal,” said a fire department spokesperson.

Bananas foster is typically prepared with bananas, butter, cinnamon and sugar in a pan or skillet. Then, rum is added and the dessert is lit on fire to reduce some of the alcoholic content, and also for visual effect.

But as the restaurant server poured the liquor into the pan at the dining table, a sudden burst of flames erupted. Caught in the blaze was the woman, a 25-year-old school teacher whose fiance’s parents invited her to dinner. In this case, the fire spread quickly. Flaming rum splashed across plates and onto skin, igniting the woman’s dress and sending horrified shrieks through the dining room.

One chef (and an aspiring firefighter, fortunately) raced from the kitchen, tore off the woman’s burning dress and stomped out the flames. With other people, he guided the woman to a couch in the lobby and covered her with a blanket as another woman frantically called 911.

Later that night, as the woman was treated at the burn center, questions remained about whether the restaurant could have done anything to prevent the fire.

“That’s not a freak accident,” said a chef at another local eatery. “That’s a lack of training. And using 151-proof rum is a poor management decision.”

But the restaurant’s owner called the fire “a terrible accident,” adding that her “main concern is for the well-being of that young lady and everyone who was hurt.”

The employee who helped the burning woman was working in the kitchen, prepping dishes for the dining room, when he saw the flames and ran to the table. An employee for more than three years, he also spent six months last year in the fire academy at a nearby college. When he saw the fire, he said he went into what he called “EMT training mode.” “I was focused on removing her from the fire. It was all a blur from there,” he said.

One family member said the next day that “this is a very traumatic time for us. It’s been quite wearing…We’re all a little bit numb.”

Cooking recipes often warn the cooks to pour flammable liquor from a separate cup, instead of from the bottle. And Bacardi 151 rum bottles carry a warning label that states “Do not use this product for flaming dishes.” Also, the spout features a “flame arrester” to prevent fires. In Florida, there are no local or state permitting requirements for flambeing dishes in a restaurant dining room.

Serious injuries from flaming dishes and drinks are rare but not unprecedented. A California woman in 1999 suffered third-degree burns when a server improperly prepared Cherries Jubilee tableside at a steak house. And a woman in London was seriously burned in 2005 when a flaming Portuguese sausage dish exploded after it was topped with rum. And two young girls were burned in Arizona in 2006 when alcohol in a hollowed-out “onion volcano” was ignited at a Japanese restaurant.