A fire in a Harlem apartment early Wednesday sparked by the lithium-ion battery on an electric scooter killed a 5-year-old girl and a 36-year-old woman, and left the child’s father in critical condition, the police and fire officials said.
Firefighters responded just after 2:30 am to a blaze that broke out in a sixth-floor apartment in the Jackie Robinson Houses, owned and managed by the New York City Housing Authority. The scooter was inside the front door of the apartment, blocking the exit, according to the Fire Department. The fire was contained to one apartment and brought under control about an hour later. A firefighter and at least one other person sustained minor injuries.
Outside the multistory NYCHA building on Wednesday, a charred scooter sat unattended. Former co-workers and neighbors of the father, whom they identified as Erick Williams, 46, said it belonged to him. They described him as fun-loving and said he had previously worked for the Parks Department. His name, and that of his daughter and the woman, who neighbors said was his girlfriend, were not immediately released by the police.
Electronic bikes and scooters have been implicated in numerous fires in recent months, leading the housing authority to propose banning them from its buildings entirely. Experts say the problems are often linked to aging, damaged or malfunctioning batteries and charging devices. The Fire Department has repeatedly warned of the dangers of lithium-ion batteries.
Another fire on Monday on Townsend Avenue in the Bronx was also sparked by lithium-ion batteries from electronic bikes or scooters, fire marshals said. Wednesday’s fire brought the number of fatalities linked to lithium-ion batteries this year to five, according to Fire Department statistics.
Marshals have conducted 121 battery-related investigations so far this year — already exceeding the 104 carried out last year — and have recorded 66 related injuries. For all of 2021, there were 79 injuries and four deaths related to lithium-ion batteries. (While those batteries are also found in cellphones, laptops and electric cars, there have not been widespread reports of those items catching fire.)
According to NYCHA, since 2019, there have been about 10 fires in public housing that have received an official or probable cause related to lithium-ion batteries. In a statement on Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the agency said that the public-comment period for the proposed new policy to ban e-bikes and e-bike batteries in its buildings had been extended until Sept. 6, and that the agency would issue a final policy after that date.
The Fire Department distributed pamphlets and fliers about fire safety and advice for using electronic bikes and scooters near the site of the fire on Wednesday. Among the tips: Before buying an e-bike, make sure it has the UL Mark, which means it has been tested and meets safety standards. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for charging and storage, and only use that company’s power cords.
The popularity of e-bikes has grown dramatically in recent years, but many who use them — for both work and pleasure — may struggle with those guidelines. Doing so can be much more costly than buying off-brand or refurbished equipment. And e-bikes are often used by delivery workers who are making very low wages and who have to scrounge to afford the bikes in the first place.
E-bikes were only legalized in New York City in 2020, when many residents were relying on delivery services, though they were a common sight before then. In addition to concerns about fire safety, there has also been growing friction over traffic safety on the city’s crowded streets.
Inside the Harlem building on Wednesday, the walls in the hallway near the apartment were blackened, and the smell of smoke lingered. A woman who lives on the fifth floor said she had escaped with her children, including a 3-month-old.
“It’s scary,” she said. “It’s a tragedy that it happened, a little girl’s life was lost.”
Outside, a pair of former co-workers — Stephanie Cardona, 46, and Courtney Story, 52 — discussed setting up a memorial. They had worked with Mr. Williams at the Parks Department, where they said he was a crew chief. The scooter, they said, was “his transportation.”
Ms. Cardona recalled that Mr. Williams was always in the local park with his daughter and three Huskies, which they said also perished in the fire.
Ms. Story held back tears as she contemplated the struggle that Mr. Williams had ahead of him.
“I hope to God he pulls through,” she said. “It’s going to be a process to pull through, and then your baby is gone.”
“The world is not playing fair at all,” she added.
Alain Delaquerière contributed research.