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.


Tags: , , , , , , ,


Share this Post

  • Terry

    I, too, was a loyal Apple customer untiI had the same sort of problem (though not a fire) with Apple several years ago concering a monitor that failed many times and then they said it had outlived it’s useful life. After some arguing with customer service I gave up and ditched all of my Apple products and went PC. Terrible way to treat loyal customers. Overpriced and over rated and over hyped products.

  • I have an older 32GB iPhone 3GS that just had the battery expand and force the screen and all other internals out of the housing of my unit. Thankfully it didn’t explode and catch fire, but I not have a phone that – even discounted with ATT – cost me nearly $400 new in 2009. While I’ve since upgraded my phone, I still used it as an iPod Touch. It worked amazingly well given that it’s three generations older, but now it’s toxic paperweight.

  • JC

    Aside from the obvious failure of the customer service process that was once a hallmark of Apple, It’s interesting that the issue of counterfeit chargers was not mentioned in the article. The recall and swap of thousands of fake chargers that were causing similar fires was just a few weeks ago. Just food for thought.

  • Jennifer

    The number one reason I do not own a single Apple product is stories like this. I attend a University and have seen a dramatic change in how many students own apple products and how many own non apple products. Apple is a company that is failing on many levels and will soon be obsolete unless they change their ways especially in the customer service area.
    Last night my son a new college student purchased a 1400.00 computer from Dell instead of Apple.

    • Craig

      Your post is curious in that it is lacking any kind of evidence. Then you drop the Dell name and your credibility evaporated instantly. Might want to do a little poking around on this thing we call the Internet prior to picking sides – dellsucksnet1.blogspot.com

    • ALRUI

      Sad to think of the man hours he as well as others in the world waste using Microsoft operating systems…..

      • ARegularGuy

        I don’t understand your statement. I’ve used many different computers since the early 80’s and each OS has it’s problems. I get plenty of work done on my PC. My daughter gets plenty done on her macbook. I don’t see how having a macOS would make my software run any better?

        • ALRUI

          Macs simply last longer in service then PC’s do & require far fewer man hours to keep users up & running. If you were honest with yourself you would know this to be true – I use both platforms in my company & have far fewer problems with Macs. I also have a good friend who is head of the IT dept. at a MAJOR university & though they allow departments to pick which platform they want he also has far less issues with those that choose Apple products. These are facts!

          • John Smith

            @ALRUI…. that was the most horrifically uninformed and incorrect statement I’ve ever heard. I ran two different industrial-level all-Mac computer labs and I had NOTHING but HDD and mobo failures. Apple uses lower quality materials (like IBM crapstar drives and no-name brand cd-roms). In 6 years of running 11 apple workstations and two apple blade servers I had about 7 HDD failures and two replaced mobos, one of them replaced TWICE. Apple has managed to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes for too long. Scratch the surface and they’re crap equipment with a premium price. I’ll stick with my custom build ultra high quality PC’s, thanks.

          • ALRUI

            Youre NUTS!

  • Ellen

    What about wiring at the house?!? It might be the reason…

  • Nonya Biznas

    This guy is dumb. Apple has great customer service. You can’t expect Apple to give you a better upgraded version of their IPhone simply because your old iPhone from a few generations ago caught fire. They are trying to make you whole again not better off. Spray some fabreeze and take the new iPhone 4. It’s better than your OLD iPhone 4 before and after it burnt. I took my iPhone into the Apple store because my phone would not turn off and not turn back on and showed it needed to be charged even though it had almost a full battery charge. The looked at the phone and said my battery reached the end of its life cycle. So I had them put in a new one. It cost 79.99 since tge warrenty expired. While they were putting in the new battery the tech accidently bent a component in my phone. The phone still worked though. The lady helping me came out and told me what happened. Then she told me they were giving me a brand new iPhone 4s due to the error free of charge. Now that’s customer service to me. My old one had a crack in the screen so I am very happy with Apple and its customer service. This guy wants to come up on a better phone. Apples offer was how it should be. What a big baby. Yes it could have been worse but it wasn’t. Get the new iPhone 4 and move on.

    • rogerio gret

      How about if the phone has burnt your child’s face off? Then can you expect a new Iphone?

      If Iphones have spontaneous combustion I think you could expect recalls and at least 50k for this dude for figuring out everybody is holding a killing machine.

      • ALRUI

        Lots of “if’s” in the world – looking back at them solves absolutely NOTHING!

      • daniel

        first gen ipods were recalled for this very same problem. Iphones are known for poor usb connection parts. When the battery heats the non protected plastic component (most phones outside of Apple don’t use plastic here as it can cause this very problem) melts, heating the components that cause the insulation under the glass to ignite, often warping the glass which can fracture out, leading to more than one case of glass imbedding in the face. Warnings were released on the phones as well, but verbal press statements instead of packaging warnings, an issue the 5 still did not fully correct outside ofvusing a smaller plastic connection plate.

    • LarryV

      Forget the new iPhone 4. Sue them for a billion dollars. That’s the only way to get that greedy company to do anything. By hitting them in their wallet.

  • John

    Why would he think he deserves an upgrade I don’t understand products get replaced like for like he is just using this to get a better phone.

  • Narr

    I think that Apple should upgrade, for two reasons.

    A later model is likely to have improved engineering and components, including the battery. Just ask Boeing if you think there isn’t a potential issue here.

    The second reason is that the phone nearly burned down his house. That should be enough reason to give him something other than what did this, fully rationally or not.

    Possibilities like the charger have been mentioned, and the Chinese are apparently but a fully thought-out design would shut off charging rather than overcharge. Lithium batteries themselves usually have this safety cut-out, as far as I know, but possibly not in the super-slim phone designs.

    A replacement phone will have a factory charger.

    I think the original poster is entirely being sensible to ask questions about the smoke and so forth – wouldn’t you? A lawyer might advise on rights if needed.

    • Bob Smith

      SD, you make a lot of sense. The other issue that seems completely ignored is the impact of the fact that the product caught on fire.

      there appears to be no accountability on the part of Apple. Apple doesn’t publish a disclaimer that products I purchase from them can catch fire. So when their product allows this kind of impact – they should “make it right” with the customer.

      Great thoughts on your part SD – thanks.

      • Nic

        If it is electronic, it has a chance of catching fire…

  • sd

    I agree with the last two posters. Apple offered to make the guy’s phone ownership what it once was. I’m guessing issues like the use of aftermarket batteries or chargers or of dodgy house electricity or of leaving the phone on a soft surface — undiscussed here — didn’t keep Apple from making the offer.

    Would the guy have been OK with the offer if the iPhone 4 if the 4s or 5 did not exist to be handed to him? Would it have been great to offer him an iPhone 5 instead of his 4? Sure? Should Apple do this for everyone whose older iPhone suffers some cataclysmic event? Watch old iPhones suddenly become prone to a series of unfortunate events.

    I think Apple did alright here.

  • Steve Glaser

    I’ve had a recent incident with Apple. It took a while, but their customer support folk eventually made it right. They have many layers and you have to get to someone that actually has the authority to upgrade. As a general rule, I keep working up the chain till I get to someone who has the authority to say yes to my request. If they say no, I usually drop it, but I don’t like to accept no from someone that doesn’t have the authority to say yes.

    In my case, it was an in-store warranty repair on an iPhone 4S. After erasing my working-but-imtermittent phone, they noticed that they didn’t have a replacement in stock. They found one at a store 30 minutes away. After restoring to that one, I noticed that it was defective (no audio on phone calls even though music, … worked fine). Second store was also out, but found another one at a 3rd store (1 hour away). It was also defective (touch panel intermittently registered touch events when you finger was 1/2 inch from the screen). Applecare offered to upgrade me to an iPhone 5 for free, but couldn’t do it at the store. I bought (and returned) an unlocked iPhone 5 till they could the replacement to the store. Store also threw in a $40 case to make up for the hassles.

  • BC

    I’ll side with take the offer. Most companies would say this is out of warranty, you were not using their official charger or find another way to deny you a warranty or out-of-warranty replacement.

    I have been told if you persist enough you can probably get more out of Apple. Getting your story told and generating these responses are the right first steps if that is your intention. People (and news outlets) love stories about technology (especially Apple’s) that go poof.

    I had an iPhone 4S going up in smoke one day. It was in my office. It stunk the who place up. We couldn’t open the windows to vent it so we had to live with it for a day until the building AC took care of it. I took it to the Apple store and after gathering some information replace it without grief.

    It was interesting that they asked if anyone breathed the fumes – it’s bad if you do BTW. They then placed the phone in a biohazzard bad. They wouldn’t even take the SIM out of it. They didn’t want to touch it.

    Based on this and the consistent (a few times above and beyond) great service I’ve received from Apple, I’ll be a customer for a long time.

    I will leave with this. These are electronic products that are very complex and there are all sorts of problem that can occur. Even the batteries in phone are a technological marvel. The odds of this happening are 1 in 210,000 (based on some Googling). Be glad you were awake and that Apple is giving you a new phone and go buy a lottery ticket. I did but didn’t win.

  • Russell

    “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.”

    The fumes from the battery are definitely toxic.
    If he has nasal or throat irritation, he should go to the hospital and have it assessed and documented.

    There have been plenty of situations where consumers have tried to seek remedies from apple only to be shunned. Document everything just in case you have to sue.

  • DAN

    While I am not an Apple fan, having had two previous android verizon based phones, I currently have an company provided iphone 4. I find it hard to believe that, without a larger base of epidemiology (ie, phones catching on fire when charging), this represents anywhere near a real concern. Never have have I observed unusual charging temperatures with the iphone 4.

    • Michael F Kelly

      Thanks to all for the thoughts and info. I think I’ll go see a doc tomorrow. It was my phone and my throat is all raspy and eyes burning while sitting in the room where it burned. I wish I had better info. This is the first I’ve been told fumes may have been nasty. Apple said/is saying nothing. And I have also said it was apparently a rare occurrence from what I have read but when it does happen, it is scary. Imagine a fire in your living room, blazing and crackling away. Smoke, etc. Also, its natural to try to distance yourself saying it was a cheap battery or charger, etc. But it wasn’t and two hours of thorough Apple questions and my photos covered all of that. They also confirmed that the phone was given to me by Apple as a replacement about 18 months ago for another that had failed. It had never been opened, used an Apple charger, never wet, never dropped, worked fine and then one day burst into flames while charging. So while it is unlikely, don’t charge lithium bats near papers or flammables, near bed, etc. Simple enough. That’s the bottom line. And for Apple, the lesson here is to speak up and say this. And until they do, I will. I was sitting in a coffee shop this morning and there was a baby sleeping in a carrier at the next table. The baby’s mother took out an iPhone and made a call. I argued with myself for a minute then told her to be careful where the battery was charging and not to charge it on anything flammable. She looked at me a bit strangely so I said mine caught fire and it doesn’t happen often but it’s good to be safe. So tell this to everyone you know until Apple starts to. Forget the issue of whether or not I should accept the replacement iPhone or not. Who cares?

      • ALRUI

        Why not state exactly what it is youre demanding? Obviously you have something in mind or you wouldnt continue pursuing the issue. If youre looking to sue then get a lawyer and move on!

      • NIc

        You do realize that anything with an electric current has the potential to catch fire, right? everything in mankind’s creation, that has fought fire, has some sort of electrical current. just sue apple/samsung/LG/microsoft and live the rich life.

  • Jeff Utz

    Lithium ion batteries catch fire an smoke from time to time. Just ask the folks who maintain Boeing 787s. Unfortunately, nothing is with risk. Sadly, some of Apple’s products with lithium ion batteries will have similar problems. So do phones and computers from other computer makers. Considering how many millions of iOS and OS X devices with lithium ion batteries as well as those from other mankers, I feel safe with my iPhone and iPad.

  • Joel

    I don’t get this stuff about upgrades to the phone or not – if it were me, I’d be wanting to know all about what models use the same battery and/or charger system and what has an upgrade to those components – not just getting a newer model phone. Something smells fishy, and it’s not the burnt up battery.

  • daniel

    While Apple products are consistently subpar and prone to damages and glitches (working for AT&T, no phone comes in with problems as often as iphone and in my two years here I’ve dealt with four spontaneously combusted iphones), but I agree in large part with Apple here. They should pay to clean up the room where it happened, but not upgrade a phone. The point of a warranty is to replace with an identical product. The customer did nothing to earn a better phone, and constant free upgrades for the dozens of broken iphones we get a day would be a horrible business model. While this costs the man time, it’s that and damages that should be compensated, not a random free upgrade. Customers insist upon it all the time, the gimme mentality that jacks up costs for everyone.

  • Laura Shue

    In every similar story I’ve seen, it turned out that a third party repair or prior damage was responsible for the problem. It’s a shame that Mr. Kelly has chosen not to either let Apple inspect the phone or to have a qualified third party analyze the phone for the cause of the apparent battery failure, because I agree that it would be useful to know if an undamaged, unaltered OEM iPhone can burst into flames, even if the chances turn out to be 1 in 1.7 million. Apple might even be more amenable to paying for clean-up or offering an upgrade if they were allowed to determine the cause of the fire. As you suggest, li-ion battery fires (as in, actual production of flames) are exceedingly rare in batteries small enough to fit in this type of device. Refusing to turn in the allegedly defective device while angling for an iPhone 5s? No matter how true your story, that sort of approach puts you in the category of the thousands of people who attempt to run scams against companies every day.

    If Mr. Kelly is concerned about the smoke he breathed, his questions are best directed to his doctor, not a customer service representative. I don’t see how the person at the other end of the phone would be in a position to tell him exactly what burned, nor would I trust any such representation by a customer service person in any context, even if it’s might be frustrating that they can’t figure it out from afar.

    If it were me and I wanted to try to prove that Apple was responsible for the failure without returning the phone for the company to inspect, I would have a qualified person perform a forensic evaluation of the phone. If I were trying to get the phone replaced and hoping for an upgrade, I would go to an Apple store and speak to somebody at the Genius Bar, very calmly and politely, explaining that I had been offered a replacement but that I was very nervous about getting another iPhone 4 and seeing what they could do for me. In my experience in-store employees have a lot more discretion than phone support.

    I think Apple believes the gist of the story because they did offer a replacement sight-unseen, but I’m having a difficult time thinking of any other manufacturer who would offer even that much for a long out-of-warranty product, or any other context in which the customer’s insistence that, before even letting the manufacturer determine the cause of product failure, they should get such a product replaced with the latest model would be seen as a reasonable demand.

    • alrui

      Well stated Laura!

    • Imminent

      You do use reason, but you’re suggesting assumption at the start. Not valid. He should let a non-Apple company inspect the phone. But he surely shouldn’t hand it over blindly to anyone. These kinds of phone blunders will disappear in an instant and they’ll force another phone on him.

      However, you really need to think your logic through in respect to telling the man who could have LOST HIS HOME TO A FIRE to placate to Apple. Apple is not an official government entity, nor has any authority whatsoever. They should be placating the individual – never the other way around.

  • DueNorth

    Child burned today in Kennebunk Maine by her iPhone = see story here: http://www.seacoastonline.com/articles/20140131-NEWS-140139937#.Uuvs9IbAF6o.facebook

  • Kathy Horridge Kenney

    there was a report of a 13 year old girl in Maine today who had an iPhone burst into flame while in her pocket. Seems like it’s not something to ignore.

    • alrui

      Unless you like to plop down on hard surfaces with your phone in your pocket its perfectly fine to ignore as the phone was squashed and shorted the battery. The most offensive part of the whole story is that the school went into “a hold-in-place” which sounds like some sort of lockdown to me – what did they think she was going to self immolate or something?

    • Anjetta Atkins

      I had my iphone 5 in my pokect today and suffered a burn when the phone overheated out of the blue in my pocket . I was at work and i noticed a warm sensation to my leg and then a burn- checked pockets and pulled out my phone that was heated up like a heated pad on high high.

  • Kathy Horridge Kenney

    there was a report of a 13 year old girl in Maine today who had an iPhone burst into flame while in her pocket. Seems like it’s not something to ignore.

  • Kiss-ky Ottface

    Um… the iPhone 4 has a Lithium Polymer battery in it…