Minivan burns, but fire extinguisher off-limits, family says

Minivan burns, but fire extinguisher off-limits, family says »Play Video
The Cuellar family's minivan burns outside a Shell Gas Station near highways 99W and 217. The family says the attendants at the station refused to let them use the station's fire extinguishers to put out the fire.

NOTE: The  day after our original story, the owner of the Shell gas station talked to us and claimed his employees responded well to a dangerous minivan fire near gas pumps. The original story follows below.

TIGARD, Ore. - Minivan owners Michelle Cuellar and her husband claimed employees of a Shell gas station refused to let them use fire extinguishers when their van was on fire because of company policy.

Cuellar claims a small fire morphed into a raging inferno while they waited for the fire department.

"That's not true," said Cory Jackson, president of Jackson's Food Stores, in a telephone interview on Saturday morning.

"We have no such policy preventing people from using fire extinguishers."

Jackson said employees called 911 immediately and followed instructions from dispatchers to keep people away from the burning minivan.

"Nobody died. Nobody was seriously injured," he said, praising the staff members who were on duty Sunday.

The company is still reviewing surveillance tapes and interviewing employees, according to Jackson.

"This was a huge fire. This was not a fire anyone would be able to fight with a fire extinguisher," he said.

KATU will update this story with additional information as it becomes available.

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TIGARD, Ore. -- Michelle Cuellar was riding with her husband and teenage son on Sunday when their minivan filled with smoke.

She steered their 2005 Pontiac Montana into the Shell Gas Station near highways 99W and 217.

Cuellar says she parked alongside the building, rushed inside and asked an employee to call 911 and direct her to a fire extinguisher.

The worker called 911 immediately, dispatching Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue.

But what about the fire extinguisher?

"The store clerk said it's our policy not to give out our fire extinguisher," said Cuellar.

She says she and her husband ran back and forth, begging attendants and clerks to let them use a fire extinguisher.

On Friday, when KATU visited the Shell station, there were at least two fire extinguishers posted outside the pumps.

According to Cuellar, employees told her, "We're not supposed to be helping people on our premises no matter what the situation is."

Meanwhile, the smoke gave way to flames.

Plastic melted.

Windows shattered.

Basketballs and plastic bottles exploded.

Michelle, her husband and son moved away from their minivan as flames devoured their only vehicle.

They bought the van in 2010 and rely on it to shuttle their six children to school events, sports and family activities.

On Sunday, they were driving to a basketball game. It was apparently a GPS device that caused a spark in the cigarette lighter.

The fire department arrived at the Shell station three or four minutes after the clerk called 911, but it was too late.

The minivan was a loss.

The Cuellar family is now without a vehicle.

"We live paycheck to paycheck," she said. "We only have liability insurance."

KATU asked workers at the Shell Gas Station for more information on what happened.

A manager, identified by her business card as Nam Brown, declined to answer, directing KATU to the owner.

The business card listed the owner as Jackson's Food Stores of Meridian, Idaho.

A phone call and message left with Jackson's was not returned Friday.

Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue confirmed the family's story, saying when they arrived on Sunday, they found the minivan burning in the Shell station's parking lot.

There are no local laws or fire codes that would prevent a business, like Shell, from letting the public use a fire extinguisher, according to a spokesman from Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue.

Oregon's State Fire Marshal also confirmed there are no state laws requiring a business to let someone use a fire extinguisher during an emergency.

There are also no laws banning it.

Neither Tualatin Valley nor the State Fire Marshal's office had ever heard of someone being denied access to a fire extinguisher before, according to spokespeople.

Michelle just wants an explanation.

She says managers from Shell and Jackson's Food Stores have not returned her calls.

"It's ridiculous," she said, wiping away tears. "We could have put out the fire when it was small."