Man blames Dell laptop for house fire
By ERIN BRYCE
SOUTH VENICE – A fire that destroyed a South Venice house and left a family of five homeless early Thursday may have been sparked by a Dell computer model that was recalled by the company because its battery was a fire hazard.
Homeowner Louis Minnear, 36, said his wife’s Dell laptop was sitting on papers on the family’s couch when the couch mysteriously caught fire.
Minnear, who was staying with his family at a nearby motel Thursday night, said he is “convinced” the fire was started by the computer’s battery.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office is investigating, and has not ruled on the cause of the fire.
“None of us know what the cause is,” said Assistant Fire Chief Paul Dezzi. “That’s why we called the fire marshal.”
Dezzi said he knew there was a computer on the couch when the house burned, but was not aware that the computer was a Dell. He said the fire marshal’s office should issue a preliminary report on the cause today.
The flames took less than 20 minutes to move through the Falkland Road home, causing severe damage and leaving the structure uninhabitable. Sarasota County firefighters arrived at about 6:30 a.m.; they had the flames extinguished in 10 minutes.
The family lost almost all of its possessions, including 843 DVDs.
The fire came three days after Dell recalled 4.1 million notebook computer batteries. The company warned consumers the batteries could erupt in flames.
The recall is the largest safety recall in history for the consumer electronics industry.
Dell, the world’s largest PC maker, said the lithium-ion batteries were made by Sony and were installed in notebooks sold between April 2004 and July 18 of this year. Minnear said he bought the family PC two years ago. It is a Latitude D500, one of the models on the list with potential battery problems.
Minnear said he heard about the recall this week, but didn’t have the chance to do anything about it.
Minnear’s wife, Jeanne, used the laptop computer for work while at home. She is a computer programmer with Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Minnear said he smelled what he thought was an electrical fire at about 5 a.m. But after a quick sweep through the house, he went back to bed.
About 45 minutes later, Minnear woke up again and saw that his couch was engulfed in flames.
He led his pregnant wife, 9-month-old son and two dogs out of the house. Once outside, Minnear said he scrambled back inside the house two more times, grabbing what little he could salvage before the flames and heat got to be too much. He salvaged wedding pictures, baby toys and his wife’s purse.
The family lost everything else. Much of the home is charred. From the front door, a Sesame Street Elmo doll sits on the house’s edge, its red fur charred black. The smell of black soot and melted plastic reaches to the street’s edge.
“It moved fast; it burned hot,” Minnear said. “But they got it out quickly.”
American Red Cross officials have given the Minnear family a three-night stay in a local hotel and vouchers for food and clothing. The family has until Sunday to find a rental place. Their insurance company said it would be a year before they’d be back in their home.
Neighbor Randy Doby, who was awakened by his barking dog once the flames rose, said it was hard to watch the family see their house burn.
“It was sad,” Doby said. “You hated to see that.”
Minnear said his two older sons were staying with family and didn’t have to experience the fire.
He said his sons have taken it differently.
While sifting through their belongings today, their 12-year-old son, Louis, saw that his favorite teddy bear had melted. Louis was crushed, Minnear said.
Meanwhile, their 6-year-old son was more concerned about his mother missing her DVD movie collection, which melted in the flames.
“It’s funny what kids worry about,” Minnear said.
Dell documented six instances since December in which notebooks overheated or caught fire. None of the incidents resulted in injuries or death.
Minnear said its hard to imagine that his home computer caused his house to burn down.
“It isn’t something you never think about,” Minnear said. “I’m just still kind of in shock over the whole thing.”