‘Ticking time bombs’: Crown Heights fire that killed 3 family members caused by e-bike battery

A deadly Crown Heights fire was caused by two exploding lithium-ion batteries, FDNY commissioner Laura Kavanagh announced on Monday.
Photo by Lloyd Mitchell

A devastating fire that killed three family members in Crown Heights on Sunday was caused by an e-bike battery, according to FDNY commissioner Laura Kavanagh.

 The fast-moving fire started in the basement at 242 Albany Ave. just after 4 a.m. on Nov. 12 and quickly engulfed the building. Firefighters arrived on the scene within minutes of receiving the call, but were unable to rescue 81-year-old Abertha West, 58-year-old Michael West, and 33-year-old Jamiyl West. The blaze also injured 14 people, including one firefighter.

scene of e-bike fire in crown heights
The exterior walls of the Albany Avenue apartment building were charred the day after the fire. Photo by Lloyd Mitchell

At a press conference on Nov. 13, Kavanagh said FDNY fire marshals were quickly able to nail down the cause of the fire and described the deceased as “three generations of one family who were an integral part of this community.”

A ‘staggering and devastating’ number of deaths have been caused by e-bike batteries this year

So far this year, 17 people have died in fires caused by lithium-ion batteries alone, Kavanagh said.

“This number is staggering and is devastating, and it underlies a problem that we have been sounding the alarm on for some time.”

New York City has seen 93 fire-related deaths in 2023 alone, according to the commish, and is on track to see 100 fire deaths before the end of the year. 

“That is an extraordinary number not seen in decades,” she said.

woman looking at fire debris
A family friend looked at piles of charred debris from the fire on Monday. Photo by Lloyd Mitchell

Lithium-ion batteries — especially when they are not stored properly, or are charged with the wrong cables and equipment – are prone to exploding, causing fast-moving, hard-to-contain fires.

“These don’t smolder, which is where a smoke detector would typically give you early warning … they explode,” Kavanagh said. “And the second they explode there may be so much fire at that moment, you can’t get out.” 

Assistant Chief of Department John Hodges said firefighters on the scene did “everything” they were trained to do, stretching multiple hose-lines to each floor of the building and searching for victims while the fire was still blazing, but were not able to rescue the three members of the West family. One victim was found on the second floor and the two others were found on the third, Hodges said, and none would have been able to get out of the building “even in the best circumstances.” 

‘Blood on the hands of this private industry’ 

Kavanagh criticized the private companies that sell batteries for not doing enough to keep people safe, even as the city has gone “above and beyond” to address the issue of faulty lithium-ion batteries. This year, the city passed legislation to ban the sale and use of unregulated e-bikes and batteries and cracked down on e-bike stores to ensure the dangerous batteries are stored safely.

Firefighters were unable to save the three members of the West family. Photo by Lloyd Mitchell

“But there is one critical thing that could be done today, and is not — which is private industry can take action that would immediately save lives, Kavanagh said. “There is blood on the hands of this private industry, both on the online retailers who continue to sell these illegal devices to this day, and from the food-delivery apps who continue to think that this problem will solve itself.” 

Kavanagh said that retailers like Amazon and Wal-Mart must stop selling batteries and bikes that are not safety tested and certified by a national laboratory, and that apps like GrubHub and UberEats must do more to ensure the safety of workers who depend on e-bikes to make a living. 

“These illegal, uncertified devices are ticking time bombs,” she said. “We cannot, and we will not stand by while industry does nothing to stem a problem that sits squarely at their feet, and that they can do something about today.”

book page after fire
A charred book page remained on the scene of the deadly fire during the press conference. Photo by Lloyd Mitchell

Kavanagh urged New Yorkers to report unsafe bikes and batteries to the FDNY and 311, and that the department will inspect any complaints within 12 hours — but she also noted that the department cannot inspect in private homes like 242 Albany Ave., further emphasizing the need for retailers to take responsibility and stop selling unsafe equipment. 

“Normally, if you buy something online, you do not think it’s going to burst into flames in your home, you assume it’s safe,” Kavanagh said. “I would bet very much that when the West family bought this device that they thought it was safe. The single greatest thing that we could do is make sure that unsafe devices can’t be sold.”