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Deadly Florida house fire caused by exploding vape pen, firefighters say

A man was killed in a house fire in St. Petersburg, Florida, that firefighters think started after the lithium-ion battery in his vape pen exploded.
Image: Fire rescue workers stand outside the house of a man who died after a vape pen exploded
Fire rescue workers outside the house of Tallmadge D'Elia, 38, of St. Petersburg, Florida, who was killed in a fire that firefighters believe was started when his vape pen exploded.WFLA

A Florida man who was found dead after a house fire on Saturday may have been killed by a vape pen that exploded, sparking the blaze, authorities said on Monday.

St. Petersburg firefighters said they found Tallmadge D'Elia, 38, dead inside a second-floor bedroom in his house on 19th Avenue Northeast in St. Petersburg after receiving a call from a smoke alarm monitoring company. The fire originated in the bedroom, they said.

"From the information we gathered on scene through process of elimination, we narrowed it down that the ignition source was a vape that was being used," said Lt. Steven Lawrence, the deputy fire marshal.

The official cause of the fire, as well as D'Elia's cause of death, has not been released pending further investigation and an autopsy, but Lawrence noted that the injuries sustained by D’Elia were consistent with a lithium-ion battery explosion. Authorities have yet to learn the manufacturer of D'Elia's vape.

"We believe that there's a possibility that the battery pack used in the vape mod had an issue and exploded, and that was the ignition of the fire."

D’Elia began smoking cigarettes while working in the television industry, but began vaping several years ago as a means of quitting, according to relatives.

"A lot of people who work in TV end up smoking, so he picked up vaping to try and stop smoking cigarettes," said D'Elia's father, Christopher, who noted that his son often went by the nickname Wake.

"I saw him using it and I didn't think about any inherent dangers of using it, but now I know that there's something not right. He was a very bright, friendly, happy guy who loved kids; a really nice individual. People loved him," Christopher D'Elia said.

Vaping is inhaling the aerosol, commonly called vapor, produced by electronic cigarettes to simulate the act of smoking tobacco.

D'Elia would not be the first vaper to fall victim to an exploding vape pen: in January 2017, an Idaho man suffered second-degree burns on his neck and lost nine teeth after a vape he was using exploded in his mouth. In 2016, a vape user in New York suffered third-degree burns when the device exploded in his pants pocket while he was at work.

Despite this, vaping advocates continue to stand by the safety of vapor products, insisting that events such as these can be avoided with a bit of attentiveness.

"Millions of adults use vapor products regularly and incidents like these are not common," Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, a nonprofit that advocates for vapor products as a tool to help smokers quit, said in an e-mail. "When charged, stored and used under proper conditions, vapor products pose no more of a fire risk than cellphones and laptops that use similar lithium-ion batteries."

However, he said, short circuits can occur when battery-operated products are subjected to extreme conditions or used with unwrapped or damaged batteries. "For those consumers wishing to use more advanced products, learning and practicing battery safety is a must," he added.