Local man burned up by Apple's response to iPhone fire

When Michael Kelly’s iPhone caught fire last week, he was pretty upset. But Apple’s response to the incident has made him livid.

Kelly was walking through the living room of his Orinda home on Tuesday, Aug. 20, when he heard a loud pop, followed by a crackling sound. He looked over at the small chair nearby on which his iPhone 4 was charging and saw that the device was engulfed in flames about a foot high. Kelly, a CEO of a small market research firm, grabbed the first thing he could find — a newspaper — and whacked the phone with it. The fire quickly went out, but the room filled with smoke, black ash dropped to the floor — and Kelly’s phone was left a melted mess.

“It was scary,” said Kelly, 70. “I shook for two hours.”

But he considers himself lucky. For one thing, the phone wasn’t near anything that could easily burst into flames. And he was nearby and awake when the iPhone caught fire.

“If it had been 12 hours earlier, I would have been in bed,” he said. “I don’t know what would have happened.”

After opening up his windows and doors to try to air the smoke out of his house and cleaning up a smudge on his carpet left by the black ash from the flames, Kelly decided to contact Apple to alert the company to the incident. Because the iPhone was his work phone, he needed to replace it.

After struggling to find the right number at Apple and then being transferred several times once he found one, Kelly said he spent about two hours on the phone with an Apple customer service representative answering questions about such things as the amount and color of smoke the fire generated and whether it was preceded by any sparks. The Apple representative asked Kelly to send pictures of the phone and then to send some more.

Michael Kelly's burned iPhone

A side view of Kelly’s iPhone 4 after the fire.

When Kelly inquired about his options for replacing the phone, the representative told Kelly he couldn’t help him until Apple’s engineers had a chance to look at the information he submitted.

Apple didn’t get back to Kelly until the next day, when the company offered to replace the burned phone with another iPhone 4. Given what happened with his last iPhone 4, Kelly rejected the idea of getting another one. And he considered Apple’s offer insufficient, given that the fire could have caused a lot of damage to his home. He was also upset that Apple couldn’t or wouldn’t tell him what was in the smoke that he breathed in and whether it was toxic.

Apple’s representative said that simply swapping out the burned iPhone 4 for an undamaged iPhone 4 was all he was authorized to do.

“This is a big thing, and you’re treating it like a repair,” Kelly said he told the company representative.

An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment on the incident to SiliconBeat.

Since then, the Apple representative Kelly spoke with has called him nearly daily pushing the same offer, which Kelly has continued to reject.

Kelly has been using Apple products since the Mac debuted. Given that, he feels like Apple ought to be treating him better.

“I’m a really loyal person for Apple here,” he said.

From his discussion with the Apple representative and his own research afterward, Kelly believes that the cause of his phone’s fire was a problem with its battery. Lithium-ion batteries, which power the iPhone and loads of other electronic devices, pose a constant — if remote — danger of overheating and catching fire, just like with Kelly’s phone. He believes that Apple hasn’t done enough to warn its customers about the potential danger.

Michael Kelly's burned iPhone

Kelly’s iPhone, with its melted rubber bumper, sits atop the book it was on when it caught fire.

As someone who has been involved in marketing for years, Kelly is disappointed at how Apple has handled his incident. The company could have won itself some positive publicity if it had quickly offered to replace his phone with a more recent model, he argued.

“I would be out there telling everyone how great Apple is,” he said.

Instead, he’s grown increasingly frustrated. The company still hasn’t told him whether he should be concerned about the smoke he breathed. And the company hasn’t offered to do anything about the smoke odor that still persists in his home. 

On Saturday, as a kind of prank to try to get Apple’s attention, he placed his burned iPhone up for sale on eBay. He also shared his story with a friend who runs a crisis management consulting service. The acquaintance has since used the incident as a case study in a blog post about how companies ought to handle such situations.

Kelly said the incident has made him question his loyalty to Apple.

“I went from being a loyal customer, just wanting to help it not occur again and get another phone to really disappointed in Apple,” he said in the email. “I thought we were friends, Apple and I. Not so.”

Update: I corrected the caption on the third picture. The iPhone is resting atop a book, not, as I formerly reported, the newspaper Kelly used to extinguish the flames.

Update 2: I’ve edited this post to make it more concise.

Photos courtesy of Michael Kelly.

Troy Wolverton Troy Wolverton (226 Posts)

Troy writes the Tech Files column as the Personal Technology Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. He also covers the digital media, mobile and video game industries and writes occasionally about Apple, chips, social networking and other aspects of technology. Previously, Troy covered Apple and the consumer electronics industry. Prior to joining the Mercury News, Troy reported on technology, business and financial issues for TheStreet.com and CNET News.com.