A Death-By-Cell-Phone Story Falls Apart
By Patrick J. Lyons
Ever been so annoyed at some boor yakking too loud and too long on his cellphone that you find yourself wishing the accursed thing would just blow up in his hand? (Or have you ever had someone wish that on you?) Then consider this strange tale.
The technology press was alive yesterday with this news out of South Korea, as reported by the English-language Korea Times:
A 33-year-old excavator driver was found dead on Wednesday in Cheongwon, North Chungcheong Province, after a suspected cell phone battery explosion, police said.
The man, identified only with his surname Seo, was found lying dead beside his excavator in a stone quarry in Cheongwon at 8:40 a.m. by his colleagues. His cell phone was found in his shirt pocket with its battery severely melted and his chest burned and fractured, the police said.
What a nightmare-in-everyday-life scenario it was — a constant companion and helpmate that suddenly turns into a live grenade. And plausible too: the overheating problem with lithium batteries may be rare, but it is widely known (another case of one catching fire while being charged on a nightstand turned up just a day later in New Zealand).
But the morbid fascination that the technology press would naturally have with the story out of South Korea was quickly laced with notes of puzzlement, bordering on skepticism — a feeling that investigators evidently shared: The reported injuries didn’t seem to quite match the supposed cause. From Information Week:
Police want to know why a 33-year-old quarry worker was found with broken bones, heart damage, and a melted cell phone in his left chest pocket.
The manufacturer, which turned out to be LG, wanted to know that, too. A company representative told the Korea Times that a foil coating on the battery would make it melt, not explode, if it overheated, and the man’s phone indeed looked merely to have melted.
It isn’t out of the question that an exploding cell phone could cave in someone’s ribs — it apparently happened to a welder in China in June, Information Week reported. But the high temperatures he was exposed to were thought to be to blame, not any fault in the phone, and the Korean quarry worker was working outdoors in the winter cold. How could it have killed him?
All that skepticism now appears to have been well warranted. Today, the police arrested a coworker of the dead man and charged him with manslaughter. They say he has confessed to accidentally killing Mr. Seo by backing into him with a drilling vehicle, and then trying to frame the cell phone.
It’s hardly consolation for Mr. Seo’s family, of course, but it is no doubt a relief for LG stockholders, not to mention a bit of a black eye for the all the news outlets that seized a little too eagerly on the initial story line. As the Korea Times noted today in a rueful editorial:
We have often seen cases of fierce competition for media coverage causing irresponsible reporting not based on facts but on rumors, speculation and unconfirmed sources. [ … ] Reporters, editors and publishers are struggling to meet both timeliness and accuracy. They try not to sacrifice one thing for the other. But, it is not easy for them to do both at the same time in a highly competitive environment.
Media outlets should learn a lesson from the cell phone case. They must be careful not to repeat the mistake of false reporting, which might cause irrevocable damage to businesses, the public, the government, or the country.
[The LEDE Blog New York Times]
Cell Phone Battery Explodes in the Night
James Niccolai, IDG News Service Thursday, November 29, 2007 7:00 AM PST
A New Zealand man was woken in the middle of the night when his cell phone battery exploded and burst into flames, the second exploding battery incident reported this week.
Norman Sievewright said he was asleep in bed about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday when he woke to a loud bang and found his cell phone battery in flames on the carpet. The phone had been charging while he was asleep.
"It was very scary ... especially the fumes and stuff. The back has been blown off the phone," he told New Zealand's TVONE television news channel.
The phone was made by Nokia, which asked Sievewright to turn over the battery and charger so it can investigate. Until it has done so, "it would be inappropriate to speculate," a Nokia spokeswoman said via email.
In August Nokia issued an advisory about faulty batteries in some of its phones. It said 46 million Nokia-branded BL-5C batteries were vulnerable to a short circuit that could cause them to overheat while recharging, and offered to replace them for customers who are concerned.
Nokia did not issue a recall and said incidents had occurred with only a tiny fraction of phones -- 100 out of the 46 million. The batteries were manufactured by Japan's Matsushita Battery Industrial Co. Ltd. and sold in a wide range of Nokia devices.
Nokia said it didn't know yet what type of battery was inside the phone in New Zealand, and attempts to contact Sievewright Thursday were unsuccessful.
Also Wednesday, police in South Korea said a worker may have died because his cell phone battery exploded in his pocket, the Associated Press reported. The man was found dead at his workplace in a quarry with a melted cell phone battery in his shirt pocket, according to the report.
The doctor who examined the man said the pressure caused by the explosion may have "damaged his heart and lungs" and led to his death, according to the AP, which quoted a local news agency. That phone was made by LG Electronics, reports said.
With close to 300 million cell phones sold in the world last quarter, such battery explosions are considered extremely rare.