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St. Petersburg family blames brand-new Galaxy Note 7 phone for destroying their SUV

Lt. Steven Lawrence says the phone, which was plugged in at the time of the fire, has not been ruled out as the fire’s cause.
Published Sep. 9, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — Nathan Dornacher said he learned that his new Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone had been recalled due to exploding batteries at a very inopportune time:

It was after his 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee caught fire and exploded in his driveway Monday.

St. Petersburg Fire Rescue said the sport utility vehicle was burning when firefighters arrived at 3257 58th St. N about 10:30 a.m. Monday and extinguished the fire.

Investigators are still determining the cause of the blaze, but in an email to the Tampa Bay Times, Dornacher's wife, Lydia Butcher, said the family blames their new smartphone.

Samsung, the South Korean electronics giant, said it has received reports of at least 35 batteries exploding in its Galaxy Note 7, the latest iteration of its popular Android phone that was released last month.

Dornacher said Thursday that Samsung has been helpful with the situation, but the family has had problems getting answers from their wireless provider, Verizon, about the fire.

In her email, Butcher said the blaze started Monday morning while Dornacher left the SUV running in the driveway with the air conditioning on and the phone plugged in. They were unloading their Labor Day garage sale finds.

When Dornacher returned to the Jeep, the email said, he "saw the fire through the window."

Dornacher asked his wife to bring him a fire extinguisher, but as he opened the SUV's door, the email said, "he heard explosions." Then they called 911.

"(Only) after the St. Petersburg Fire department put out the fire and we got ourselves composed and started contacting insurance … did we learn of the recall on his phone," Butcher said. The couple bought the phone about a week before the fire.

St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Lt. Steven Lawrence said that while they're still investigating the cause of the fire, they've yet to find a reason to rule out the phone.

Lawrence and a fire investigator were back at the scene of the fire Thursday. They peered inside the melted, soot-covered Jeep. All the windows were smashed. The interior had been stripped by the flames. The vehicle's bare metal was left exposed.

"The fire originated in the center console," Lawrence said as he poked his head through the driver's side window.

That's where Dornacher had left his phone plugged in. After the fire was out, he saw the phone charger was still plugged in, he said Thursday evening.

Lawrence said it could take several days to determine the exact cause of the fire and finish their report. Part of the inquiry, he said, will require reaching out to Samsung to learn more about the battery issues and why the phone was recalled. Investigators will also have to rule out the Jeep itself as the cause of the fire.

On its website, Samsung said the company "identified an issue with certain Note 7 battery cells." Lawrence compared the situation to a popular hoverboard toy that made headlines for a similar flaw.

"It happens because of the heat the batteries generate," Lawrence said. "That stored energy becomes fuel when they overheat."

In a statement to the Times, Samsung said it is "aware of the incident" in St. Petersburg and is "working with Mr. Dornacher to investigate his case and ensure we do everything we can for him."

The company said it would replace any purchased Note 7s starting Sept. 1, when it first acknowledged the battery issue.

Dornacher said Samsung has offered to replace his phone, but the ordeal makes him question if he wants to continue purchasing a phone from the company.

"I don't know if I feel safe with another Samsung phone," he said.

He said he and his wife were never told that the phone, which they purchased on Aug. 28, was recalled, and they don't understand why they weren't.

By Thursday evening, the charred vehicle was towed from the family's residence, leaving behind shattered glass and the scent of smoke in the driveway where it caught fire. A family friend has given them another Jeep to drive for the time being.

Times staff writer LaVendrick Smith contributed to this report. Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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