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New York’s Year of Battery Fires Keeps Getting Worse

Seventeen people have died so far. Officials blame a plague of cheaply-produced, unsafe batteries.

Firefighters in New York.
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A lithium-ion battery sparked a deadly blaze that killed three family members in a Brooklyn brownstone over the weekend, the FDNY revealed on Monday. Two electric scooters, powered by lithium-ion batteries, were found at the site.

Per WABC, the fire started in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights at around 4:30 a.m. on Sunday. Though firefighters arrived at the scene in under four minutes, the brownstone was already engulfed in a wall of flame. The fire ultimately claimed the lives of three generations of the West family: Albertha West, 81, as well as her son, Michael West, 58 and her grandson, Jamiyl West, 33. Twelve others were injured.

It’s a story that has become all too common in New York City. According to FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh, Sunday’s fire brings the total number of people killed by battery fires to 17. Two hundred and thirty eight total fires have been linked to the batteries, according to officials. When produced under accepted standards, lithium-ion batteries are safe, as The New YorkTimes notes. But cheaply-produced, unregulated batteries for e-bikes and scooters are proliferating, particularly among delivery workers.

"We owe it to the West family to do everything we can to make sure we do not lose one more New Yorker to these devices," said Kavanagh. "We are on track to surpass 100 fire deaths this year. That is an extraordinary number not seen in decades."

Lithium-ion battery fires are notoriously difficult to put out, as our own Matthew Zeitlin explained earlier this year. Tightly-packed battery cells can give way to dangerous thermal runaway, resulting in fires that are prone to re-ignition. Batteries also do not smolder before exploding, making it impossible for smoke detectors to, well, detect them.

"They explode – and the second they explode, there may be so much fire at that moment, you can't get out," Kavanagh said.

Kavanagh specifically called out big corporations like Amazon, Walmart, Grubhub, and Uber Eats as the true instigators of NYC’s prolific year of fires. These companies are ultimately responsible for a huge underground market of low-cost and unregulated batteries, bikes, and scooters, she claimed.

“There is blood on the hands of this private industry,” Kavanagh said. She added, “We anxiously await to hear from the delivery apps and the online retailers who we have reached out to and not heard back.”

Charu Sinha profile image

Charu Sinha

Charu Sinha is the audience editor at Heatmap. She was previously a news writer at Vulture, where she covered arts and culture. She has also written for Netflix, iHeartMedia, and NPR. Read More

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