AUSTIN (KXAN) — Maggie Kieffer works at the front desk at Circle C Dental in south Austin. On Tuesday morning, the 31-year-old headed to work to open the office as she usually does, but when she arrived, Kieffer immediately recognized that something was off.
“There was this acidic, putrid smoke throughout the entire place – it burned to breathe. It was pretty scary,” Kieffer admitted.
She and her colleagues determined that the smoke was coming from the staff bathroom in the back of the building. What they saw there shocked them.
“Our toilet exploded,” she said. “It was black, (and) looking up at the ceiling where the vent should have been, there was just a black hole… I had no answers, just a lot of questions.”
The scene was unrecognizable. What previously was a toilet had become a stub. Shards of ceramic shrapnel covered the bathroom floor, and closer to the toilet, or toilet stub, pieces of it had heated to the point that they melted into a black sludge. Thankfully, no one was injured.
The Austin Fire Department came to investigate the incident. Their theory was that the ceiling vent overheated, set on fire and dropped onto the toilet seat which started to burn. The toilet, AFD said, then got so hot that the ceramic bowl cracked.
“In my 30 years of experience, I have never seen anything like it,” Lt. Ron Hutto said.
Kieffer did have another theory, though. She found a news story of a toilet in Oklahoma that suffered a similar fate. In this instance, a lightning bolt struck an apartment building, traveled through the exhaust vent and exploded the toilet. No one was injured in this event, either. She said the toilet explosion from Oklahoma looked similar to theirs.
When asked about the chance that lightning caused the damage, Hutto said he didn’t think there were any storms that day. When AFD left the dental office, Hutto felt pretty confident that it was the vent fan that caused the destruction, but “it was definitely unusual,” he said.
KXAN News meteorologist Sean Kelly looked at the weather archives of the night the toilet exploded. He didn’t see a record of lightning during the timeframe this happened, but there was some rain. Kelly said that there could have been some lightning that wasn’t detected by the radar.
And if lightning struck the toilet, it could explain why some of it melted.
“Lightning can heat the air it passes through to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit – five times hotter than the surface of the sun,” Kelly said.