Fire investigator: Vape pen explosion may have led to St. Petersburg man's death

Posted at 1:22 PM, May 05, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-07 12:38:48-04

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- We have seen them on national headlines. E-cigs and vape pens exploding causing burns and serious injuries. Now, fire investigators believe it could have led to a death on Saturday.

The St. Petersburg Police Department received a call at 9:42 a.m. in reference to a structure fire in the 300 block of 19th Avenue Northeast.

“I saw the smoke coming out of the roof and we were hoping that nobody was home but then we found out that Wake was home," said Dale Kleine.

She is talking about her long-time neighbor, 38-year-old Tallmadge Wakeman D'Elia. She was the one to identify him after almost 45% of his body was burned.

Lt. Steven Lawrence, a deputy fire marshal for St. Pete Fire & Rescue, believes D’Elia’s vape pen exploded and led to his death.

"It's like having a small, little larger than a firecracker, in your hand," Lawrence said, "It can explode and at that point it can project either the pieces of the lighter itself or the vape pen. They become pieces of flying debris and shrapnel."

An explosion can happen if the lithium battery overheats, Lawrence explained. But he says they won’t know the official cause of death until an autopsy is completed. If this is indeed what happened it could be the first vape pen explosion death in the nation.

According to a report by the U.S Fire Administration, part of FEMA, from 2000 to 2016 there were nearly 200 such reported explosions but no one died. The report calls fires or explosions caused by the batteries “uncommon” but that “consequences can be devastating and life-altering for the victims." It says that when they do happen the shape and construction of the devices make them behave like “flaming rockets.”

The situation has left Kleine shaken up because she has a teen son.

“Make sure that people know these things are not as safe as they think they are," Kleine said.

Authorities are expecting to get an official cause of death by early this week.

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