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  • I was in the backseat, squeezed next to David and Ruth. My mum and dad were in the front, my dad, as usual, driving.

    Not really awake yet. We'd got up at about dawn, the long drive down to Dover ahead of us and a car ferry to catch. Bags already packed the night before, all we had to do was get in and doze while the sky brightened.

    No, not really awake even as we drew into the outskirts of Dover. Sea in sight if I cared to look, just a few turns and we'd be driving up to the ferry port entrance.

    Not really awake, certainly not awake enough to register a series of sustained car horn blasts behind us.

    "What's all the commotion?" said Ruth.

    What commotion?

    "Richard, look behind you."

    I looked. The driver of the car to the rear of us was waving his free hand and pointing at me. What on earth for? My tired eyes drifted down towards the trunk of the Mercedes. Viscerally, I felt them widen. Spewing from the back, close to the exhaust pipe, was a cloud of white, gray and black smoke, and, fleetingly, a glimpse of flame.

    "Dad, I think the car's on fire."

    "What?"

    "Dad, the car's on fire. We'd better pull off the road".

    Not so easily done. We were in an underpass with not a lot of shoulder to the side of the road, but shortly we came to a slightly wider section and stopped the car.

    Smoke billowed up from the back and swirled around the windows. "Get out", someone said, and get out we did.

    We ran.

    After we'd covered maybe fifty feet, we turned to look towards the rear of the vehicle. A small flicker of bright orange flame was burning under and over the rear bumper.

    "I'm going to get the luggage out", said my dad. More out of a sense of shock than anything else, I suspect, no one made much of an effort to stop him. He popped the trunk, and, as the flames grew in height and width, threw out suitcases. Some were smoldering.

    I had my camera with me. I decided it might be smart to get this on film for insurance purposes so I took a series of snaps, some of which you can see here. My dad might want to play the hero, but I did not. The closest I got was to some of the suitcases on the ground to pull them further away from the fire.

    My dad was reaching inside the car to recover travel documents. The trunk was now at least one half engulfed in flame. Finally, we found our voices and yelled at him to get clear. Rather reluctantly, he did.

    Two minutes later, a low "Whooooomfff" and the tank ruptured. The car was now completely in flames.

    About this time, the sirens began to make themselves heard over the sound of traffic, and along came a fire engine. A generous dose of flame retardant and the fire was over, in just a few seconds it seemed. A very blackened white Mercedes was all that remained.

    "Where's my shoe?", said little David. We looked. Not on the ground. Probably just molten plastic now.

    Somehow the loss of the shoe and my son's crestfallen face made more of an impact than the inferno we'd just escaped from. Again, I think, shock at work. It was easier to process a shoe lost than a nearly catastrophic accident.

    My dad wanted to continue on to France. Just hire a car and go. But none of the rest of us had any stomach for more travel. All we wanted was to get back to my parent's house. So a car was hired, but for me to drive us home. We arrived mid-morning. The day had hardly begun.

    Why, you may ask, didn't the car blow up and shower us with burning fuel? It was a diesel Mercedes. That makes quite a difference. My father was aware of this all the time he retrieved items from the burning vehicle. So he said afterwards. The rest of us, not so much.

    The cause? No one knows for sure. But my dad had been known to mistakenly add petrol to the diesel tank. Perhaps a mix of those two fuels led to overheating of some component of the exhaust.

    Regardless, despite the drama, we can be thankful that none of us were hurt and all we lost was a summer vacation and car.

    Those, and a few nights' sleep in the days to follow.
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