Fiery Rindge Tesla crash is N.H.’s first fatality involving an electric car

  • A 19-year-old New Ipswich girl was killed following a fiery crash on Perry Road in Rindge last month involving a Tesla Model X electric car. Courtesy

  • Three local teens were seriously injured in a fiery crash on Perry Road in Rindge Wednesday night. Courtesy Photo

  • A 2017 Tesla Model X was split in two and caught on fire after a crash on Perry Road in Rindge Wednesday night. Photo by Michelle Barnhart

  • A 2017 Tesla Model X was split in two and caught on fire after a crash on Perry Road in Rindge Wednesday night. Photo by Michelle Barnhart

  • A 2017 Tesla Model X was split in two and caught on fire after a crash on Perry Road in Rindge Wednesday night. Photo by Michelle Barnhart

Monitor staff
Published: 1/24/2019 3:26:27 PM

The death of a woman in a fiery Tesla Model X crash is the first fatal accident involving an electric car in New Hampshire, raising the issue of emergency services’ preparation for dealing with this new technology.

“I believe there’s going to be a lot of work with this, with us, with the state, with Tesla, looking at what we need to know,” said Rickard Donovan, fire chief in the town of Rindge, the scene of the December one-car crash. “There have been a lot of inquiries I have been getting about this.”

The accident happened Dec. 26, when a 2017 Tesla Model X, the SUV version of the electric company’s car, crashed on Perry Road in Rindge about 8 p.m. The vehicle broke into two pieces and burst into flames, igniting some brush and trees.

Nina Colasanto of New Ipswich, who had turned 19 that day, was pulled from the wreckage by friends and passersby. She died Saturday after a series of surgeries treating extensive burns.

Colasanto is the first person in New Hampshire to die as the result of an accident involved an all-electric vehicle, according to Michael Todd, spokesman for New Hampshire State Police.

The driver of the Tesla, 17-year-old Travis Olson of Rindge, and a second passenger were injured, but not seriously. The accident is still under investigation by the New Hampshire State Police, according to Rindge police.

Lithium-ion batteries

Electric cars are powered by hundreds of individual lithium-ion batteries connected together. Lithium-ion batteries in laptop computers, cellphones and other devices have been known to burst into flames, especially if they get damaged.

A story after the accident in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript quoted Michelle Barnhart, a person living near the accident who described how the flames reacted after the accident.

“So that was a lithium-ion battery that was on fire, which was pretty scary,” Barnhart was quoted as saying. “Every time it hit another cell in the battery it exploded again.”

However, it’s not clear whether electric cars like the Tesla are more or less subject to fires or explosions after accidents, compared to traditional cars carrying flammable gasoline or diesel fuel.

A 2017 study done for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said that electric cars haven’t been around long enough for conclusions to be reached about comparative safety but stated: “The propensity and severity of fires and explosions from ... lithium-ion battery systems are anticipated to be somewhat comparable to or perhaps slightly less than those for gasoline or diesel vehicular fuels.”

The Tesla Model X received top safety ratings from NHTSA in 2017, and was the first SUV to do so, according to news reports.

About 174,000 vehicle fires were reported in the United States in 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Virtually all of those fires involved gasoline-powered cars.

Copious amounts of water

Chief Donovan said it took at least a half hour for firefighters to put out the flames at the Dec. 26 fire. He wasn’t sure whether the fire was harder or easier to put out than a similar accident would be that involved a gasoline-powered car.

“It took lots of water, copious amounts of water. They tried (fire-fighting) foam, but it really wasn’t reacting to it,” Donovan said. “It seemed like you needed a ton of water – we didn’t know, was it reacting to metals?”

However, he added, “I’ve noticed over the past few years ... it’s taking a little more to put out car fires” for all vehicles, perhaps because of more fire-reactive metals and materials being used in vehicles.

This uncertainty is a major problem for first responders, Donovan said.

The state’s Fire Safety Academy has held classes in dealing with fires involving alternative fuel cars, not just battery-powered cars but also those fueled by other liquids such as compressed natural gas. They teach important facts for first responders, Donovan said, such as “where are the shutoffs? Where are the main lines you can’t cut into?”

Donovan said he’d like to see training specific to electric cars, which are likely to become much more common on New Hampshire roadways. But training, he added, can only do so much.

“It’s like with a structure fire. We teach in the classroom, but until you get a live fire, it’s hard to really know. It’s hard to duplicate in a training environment – the smoke, the heat,” he said. “It’s the same thing with a car fire.”

A major difference between battery fires and gasoline fires is speed: Gasoline ignites almost immediately when it comes in contact with a spark or flame, and the fire spreads rapidly. Battery fires typically take more time to build the heat necessary to start the fire. Another difference is that battery fires can linger and re-ignite more easily than most liquid-fuel fires. Tesla, for example, has warned first responders that it can take 24 hours for a battery fire to be fully extinguished.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.



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