NEW PALTZ, N.Y. – ExxonMobil Corp. and town officials are investigating a freak fire at a New Paltz gas station Thursday that is believed to have been ignited by a college student’s cell phone.
The unusual incident has generated considerable media attention, in part because some studies having suggested it’s unlikely a cell phone’s operation could spark such a fire.
Matthew Erhorn, 21, received minor burns after answering his flip-style phone Thursday night. New Paltz fire officials said the hand-held device sparked a “flash” fire from gas vapors as Erhorn was filling up the tank of his 1994 Isuzu Rodeo.
“Any type of cell phone emits a small spark,” New Paltz Fire Chief Pat Koch told reporters at the Route 299 station. “Cell phones and gas pumps really don’t mix.”
A cashier is credited with quickly deploying an extinguishing system that sprayed white powder all over the property, preventing property damage and serious injury.
Authorities said the incident shows the importance of safety precautions posted at gas stations.
“They’re there for a reason,” said Stacy Delarede, a town building and fire inspector. “People should read the signs and not answer their cell phones. . . . It is well-documented that it is dangerous to do that.”
ExxonMobil spokeswoman Patty Delaney also said customers must heed the signs.
“This is a demonstration of why we put those (signs) on the pumps,” she said. “Safety is a priority for us.”
Some research studies suggest cell phones sparking gas pump fires is just an urban legend, with static electricity more likely to create such fires.
Yet Delaney said the company believes this was a case of a cell phone’s operation “igniting sparks” and causing a fire.
Town officials agreed it’s apparently no myth.
Chief Koch, who is also a full-time New Paltz police officer, said there is no evidence anything but the cell phone could have sparked the fire. The station’s security camera footage is blank due to a computer glitch, he said, but everything points to the cell phone.
Erhorn “took the nozzle, threw it on the ground and ran” said Koch, reporting preliminary findings based on interviews and field work. “He saw a big flash of fire. He received minor singe marks.
“He just got scared, basically.”
A junior majoring in finance at the State University of New York at New Paltz, Erhorn suffered minor burns to his arm. Preliminary investigations show he was holding the phone in one hand and the nozzle in the other.
On Thursday night, Erhorn said he felt embarrassed by the incident, but he was not angry with the friend who called him on his cell phone.