Cell phone ruled out as cause of fire that injured man

Mobile phone fire turns out to be false alarm

A California fire investigator reversed an earlier finding and said Thursday that a cell phone was not the cause of a fire that critically burned a man and damaged the man's apartment.

The investigator, William Tweedy, had said in a written report issued Saturday that a cell phone malfunctioned, igniting the fire, but Thursday Tweedy said in an interview that the phone was not to blame, based on a test conducted by a Nokia phone expert.

Meanwhile, the man, Luis Picaso, 59, remained in critical condition at the University of Cailornia at Davis Medical Center, a hospital spokeswoman said. Tweedy said the man had undergone surgery yesterday and was recovering. Fire officials have not been able to interview him since the surgery.

Tweedy said he called Nokia for assistance in the investigation and did not feel compelled by any source to revise his findings. "I called Nokia and their expert performed the test in front of me," he said. The test was conducted yesterday.

"The phone still works, so it's ruled out as the ignition source," Tweedy said. The phone, a Nokia 2125i, was fairly new and was burned, but apparently the fire started somewhere else, Tweedy said.

Tweedy also ruled out "everything" in the second-story apartment as a source of the flames, including the stove, electrical outlets and ignitable liquids. "Whatever caused the fire, the evidence of that thing burned up in the fire," Tweedy said, referring to a cigarette or match as an example of evidence that might have burned up.

Tweedy said the Nokia expert, whom he would not name, could make the burned phone work, and also could make a phone call with it. The battery in the phone was undamaged, Tweedy said.

Nokia officials could not be reached immediately for comment.

Tweedy said there was no evidence of a circuit board fire inside the phone, and that the plastic case of the phone was burned from the outside, as well as a part of the leather phone case. He provided a photo of the burned phone to Computerworld, and has kept the phone for evidence. Picaso has retained an attorney, but Tweedy would not release his name.

The phone would have had to have ignited with a spark or an arc of electricity inside the phone, Tweedy explained. He said the phone would not have gotten hot enough to cause a fire if there had not been a malfunction. The phone was in the pants pocket of the victim, and the man's pants and shirt were burned, resulting in second and third degree burns on his upper torso and arms.

The phone would have needed to reach about 300 degrees to set the pants on fire, he estimated, far above the heat generated by a phone that is properly working.

"Originally, I thought the phone short-circuited or burned up to get hot enough to cause a fire, but that's not the case," Tweedy said.

Tweedy, who has been a firefighter and fire investigator for more than 20 years, said he has not encountered anything similar. "This is one of those things where I wish I wasn't the investigator responding," he said, alluding to the expected legal battle over the cause of the fire.

"I was confident with my initial findings, but on the first day I had no ability to test the phone," he said. When he got the burned phone, he took out the battery and packaged it separately from the phone to transport to his office in case the phone caught fire in his truck or office, he said.

Tweedy plans to interview Picaso again once his condition improves. Fire officials said he had a blood alcohol level of .325 and was interviewed with the help of a Spanish interpreter shortly after the fire, but Picaso could not say what happened. Damage from the fire was estimated at US$75,000 in a revised estimate. Included in the damage was a plastic patio chair that was nearly incinerated just outside the bathroom where Picaso was found. The chair was directly under a sprinkler, which was activated and helped contain the fire.

Tweedy said his investigation has been reviewed by other members of his department as well as by the Nokia expert and an insurance investigator. The insurance investigator also initially believed the phone was the cause of the fire, he said.

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Matt Hamblen

Computerworld
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