February 1

Kennebunk student’s iPhone catches fire in pocket

The girl is treated for second-degree burns at a Biddeford hospital.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A middle school student in Kennebunk suffered second-degree burns Friday when her iPhone caught fire in her pants pocket just before a class, said her family and school officials.

click image to enlarge

This iPhone is charred after catching fire in the pocket of a Kennebunk middle school student. The phone used to be green.

Courtesy Judy Milligan

The eighth-grader sustained burns on one thigh and her back, and was taken to Southern Maine Health Care in Biddeford for treatment.

Her mother, Judy Milligan, said, “I was a little bit in shock” when the school notified her about the fire. She said she preferred not to release her daughter’s name.

The 14-year-old girl had sat down just before her first-period French class Friday morning when she and her friends sitting nearby heard a pop from the Apple iPhone 5C she had been given by her mother two months earlier.

“Immediately, smoke starts billowing from around the student,” said Jeff Rodman, principal of the Middle School of the Kennebunks. “She knew right away something was wrong and, in a panic, knew her pants were on fire caused by the cellphone.”

The girl had to take off the pants, so girls in the class helped her into a corner of the room while others herded the boys from the room and summoned a teacher, who was standing just outside the door, Rodman said.

“It was sensitive. She knew she was kind of in a tough situation,” he said.

Teachers came to help, and someone in the main office called 911.

The girl had the presence of mind to “stop, drop and roll,” Rodman said, which reduced the flames and the injuries she suffered. “The phone fell out of her pocket ... and it was still smoldering. Her pants were still on fire,” he said.

Once the pants were off, one teacher wrapped the girl in a blanket while they waited for rescue workers and firefighters to arrive.

School officials declared a “hold in place,” so students could not leave their classrooms and emergency workers could get in and out of the building quickly, Rodman said.

The girl was taken to the hospital in Biddeford, where she was treated for what her mother said were second-degree burns. She was released after about 45 minutes.

She asked to return to class, her mother said, but school officials and health care workers encouraged her to go home.

“She’s very calm – just a calm person,” Milligan said.

A call to Apple headquarters was not returned by press time.

An investigator with the state Fire Marshal’s Office took pictures of the phone.

Andrew Rosenstein, owner of TechPort in Portland, which repairs Apple products, said customers have brought in batteries that were swollen and at risk of malfunction after extended use, but not from a phone that was almost new.

“There’s basically a lithium-ion type rechargeable battery built in (to an iPhone). The battery, as it charges and discharges, it’s really a chemical reaction that can generate heat,” Rosenstein said. “It’s very rare there can be an issue, but any battery is just a chemical composition that can be flammable in extreme circumstances.”

Rosenstein said his business uses a fireproof box to store batteries from devices that are being repaired, so fire cannot spread if they somehow ignite.

There have been sporadic reports of phone fires, though typically the phones that caught fire were being charged.

The most notable malfunctions of lithium ion batteries were aboard two 787 Boeing Dreamliners, causing fires that led to the grounding of the aircraft.

Rosenstein couldn’t say what would have caused the battery in the eighth-grader’s phone to burn. He said there’s nothing else in the phone that could cause a fire. “These batteries installed in Apple products in particular are extremely safe. It’s an extremely rare incident,” he said.

Milligan said her daughter is an honor student and enjoys school, especially French class. She also is a competitive swimmer with the Biddeford Manta Rays, and had to miss Friday’s practice and Saturday’s meet in Belfast.

Milligan said she almost didn’t get the call from the school telling her that her daughter had been burned.

When she left the house Friday morning with her daughter and son, she realized she had left her cellphone in the house. She contemplated going without it for the day, but instead ran inside to grab it. In the middle of her hour-long drive to work, she got the call.

The iPhone, which was green and is now black, is useless. So are the pants, which Milligan agreed to replace.

“We went to Target and got a pair of yoga pants,” she said.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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