May 17 -- A college student was pumping gas into his sports utility vehicle near New Paltz, N.Y., recently when he flipped open his cell phone to answer a call, and suddenly found himself surrounded by flames.
"The next thing you know, he said, he saw this big ball of fire," New Paltz Fire Chief Patrick Koch said. A worker triggered the emergency fire suppression system, which put out the fire, and SUNY New Paltz student Matthew Erhorn received only minor burns, though his phone was charred by the flames.
Firefighters concluded Erhorn's cell phone ignited vapors coming from the car's fuel tank as it was being filled.
"Cell phones can ignite gas fumes coming from the pump and cause a disaster," said Koch after the incident
But are the nation's 158 million cell phone users at risk if they don't hang up while they fill up their gas tanks? Although signs at gas stations warn against cell phone use, experts and a Good Morning America experiment cast doubt on the theory that cell phones can cause fires at the gas pump.
Is Static Electricity the Culprit?
Experts believe that it was static electricity — not the cell phone — that caused the fire. Static fires at the pumps are rare events, but they do happen. The Petroleum Equipment Institute reports on its Web site it has counted 158 reports to date of gas pump fires attributed to static electricity.
Static electricity ignited a gas station fire captured by security cameras in San Antonio, Texas, in November 2002. The customer pumping gas was badly burned, but survived. Static is also suspected in a 1996 fireball at a Tulsa, Okla., gas pump that killed a 33-year-old woman.
Steve Fowler, an electrical engineer from Fowler Associates, says cell phone signals are far too weak to ignite even explosive gasoline fumes. He and Jim Farr, a fire marshal from Gaston County, N.C., study static fire and say your body can build up a static charge in different ways, such as getting in and out of a vehicle.