Cyclist whose phone EXPLODED when he fell suffers third degree burns

Gareth didn’t expect his leisurely afternoon ride to lead to a dramatic emergency
Gareth Clear

Gareth Clear, 36, Bondi, NSW

Strapping on my helmet, I set off along the path. I’d ridden the trail around the Manly Dam many times before and I always enjoyed the scenic views. As an avid mountain biker, I was dressed in protective clothing with lycra shorts on underneath a thick pair of shorts.

After riding for an hour, I paused for a break. But when I went to take off again, my right foot slipped on the pedal. I hadn’t even been moving, now I was toppling off my bike! As I hit the ground, my right thigh and hip took the brunt of the impact. Luckily, it wasn’t a terrible fall. That was more embarrassing than painful! I thought.

Getting up though, I noticed something strange. There was a thick black plume of smoke coming from the top of my thigh, right under my bum.

What the hell?

It was as if I’d left the house with a time bomb in my pocket!

Looking down, I realised it was coming from the pocket in the side of my pants. I’d tucked my phone in there earlier and it must’ve struck the ground when I’d fallen. Reaching to unzip it and grab my mobile, I was hit with a searing pain. It felt as if someone had pressed a white-hot poker onto my bare skin.

‘Argh!’ I yelled out.  Leaping up, I started hitting my leg wildly as smoke billowed from my shorts. I tried to pull them off but realised that both layers of material had melted. The molten plastic mess was now stuck and sizzling into my leg!

Panicking, I managed to smack the searing phone off my thigh but I burnt my hand in the process. As it hit the ground with a loud popping sound, I was stunned. How had it reached such an intense temperature so quickly?

Pulling off my shorts, I took a moment to try and get my bearings. My hand was throbbing and my leg felt numb. And my phone was oozing a black liquid and still letting off smoke. When I’d fallen, something must have caused my phone to combust. But I didn’t even know that was possible. It was as if I’d left the house with a time bomb in my pocket!

The phone burned through the shorts
The burn was so bad I needed a skin graft… (Credit: Gareth Clear)

After 20 minutes, my phone had cooled down enough for me to pick it up. I knew it wouldn’t work, but I wanted to make sure it could be investigated further.

Dazed and confused, I headed off to meet a friend before realising I needed to go to hospital.  Along with a large burn, my skin was covered in black residue. I was worried what the lithium from the phone battery might be doing to me. Once I got to the hospital, it became clear how serious my injury actually was. I had third-degree burns from my exploding phone!

The phone oozed black liquid,
Black liquid oozed from the broken phone. (Credit: Gareth Clear)

‘You’re going to need a skin graft,’ a doctor explained as the pain set in. The next day, I was wheeled in for surgery and a section of skin was taken from the front of my leg and grafted over the affected area. I also needed to be monitored in case of lithium poisoning.  Thankfully, it was ruled out a few days later.

For the next three weeks, I had to have antibiotics to prevent infection and a special device was attached to my leg to maintain blood circulation. Then I got the great news that the graft was a success!I was so thankful my ordeal was over.

Thankfully the skin graft was a success
Thankfully the skin graft was a success. (Credit: Gareth Clear)

What happened to me was a freak accident, but it doesn’t mean it won’t happen again. I’ve since learnt that lithium batteries that are used in phones and other devices are susceptible to combustion on impact or when overheated. What no-one really knows is just how hard the impact has to be for this to happen.

I am happy to report that Apple, the makers of the phone, are investigating the incident. I hope they can find answers and stop this happening to anyone else. After all, we hand these devices to our toddlers. It’s important we know they’re safe. As for me, I won’t be carrying my phone in my pocket anytime soon!

As told to Nina Young

Originally published in that’s life! Issue 37, 2016.

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