Just weeks ago, a city Fire Department investigator visited the Chinatown e-bike store where a fire early Tuesday morning killed four people and injured two. But the inspector did not have access to the store’s basement and checked only the first floor, where he found no bikes charging.
The FDNY issued no violations at the time. But after the fire department put out the blaze, they found multiple e-bikes in the basement.
During the May 9 visit, the FDNY inspector conducted a visual inspection of the fire site, HQ E-Bike Repair at 80 Madison St., but did not check any actual batteries there to see if they had been modified. Multiple safety experts have warned that refurbished batteries are dangerous, and Mayor Eric Adams in March signed a new City Council-sponsored law that outlaws their use.
The FDNY’s investigation is ongoing. It is not yet clear whether refurbished or modified batteries were involved in the tragic blaze.
Details about the events leading up to the fire emerged Wednesday as Adams ordered the fire department to speed up its response time to 311 calls, to 12 hours from the current 72 hours, about potentially dangerous e-bike repair and sales shops.
In making his announcement, Adams specifically noted the danger of refurbished batteries.
“From the kind of explosive fires that we are seeing from improperly charging lithium-ion batteries, to those who sell refurbished batteries, we are going to respond accordingly,” he said. “There will be zero tolerance for activity that puts New Yorkers at risk.”
Standing next to the mayor at a press conference three blocks from the fire site, Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh said the department has made an aggressive effort to educate e-bike riders on proper maintenance and charging methods, and to crack down on unsafe charging that triggers fast-moving and difficult-to-squelch fires.
Kavanagh noted that since Jan. 1, the department has performed 222 inspections related to e-bikes at both commercial and residential locations and issued 612 violations, including 136 for hazardous conditions.
But she couldn’t say how many of those violations were for possession or sale of refurbished batteries, even as she praised that law and several other laws related to e-bike battery fires that the mayor signed three months ago.
“I don’t know the specific number of those violations, but we were intimately involved in negotiating that law and it was part of a package of bills that has been incredibly helpful,” she said.
Kavanagh noted that the danger of second-use modified batteries “is an issue and this law will make sure that if someone is using only refurbished batteries, we can write a violation” or even order them to vacate a location.
She also said the FDNY has “instructed all of our fire companies specifically what to look for with refurbished batteries.” The department has not yet explained why the investigator did not check the batteries at the store, as THE CITY reported Tuesday.
The number of fires caused by e-bike and e-scooter batteries has risen dramatically as the number of these mobile devices has taken off with the now ubiquitous presence of food delivery drivers across the city.
There were only 30 of these fires in 2019, the year before the pandemic. That number rose to 220 last year, and there have been 108 so far this year. The number of deaths related to these fires hit 13 so far this year after Tuesday’s fire in Chinatown.