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Nokia convinces flip-flopping investigator its phone didn’t start fire; victim's lawyer to speak today

By Paul McNamara on Thu, 01/18/07 - 5:36am.

One mystery solved, and more burning questions arise.

After days of hiding behind a veil of secrecy provided by stumblebum officials in Vallejo, Calif., Nokia has now been identified publicly as the maker of the cell phone that was in a man's pocket when his clothes caught fire and caused him critical burns Jan. 13. The story has received worldwide press attention.

(Friday morning update: More from the fire victim’s attorney and Nokia here … And you can tell the press coverage has run amok when reporters are quoting … uh, me … and the account winds up in 9 newspapers, all with my name misspelled.)

However, Nokia engineers have apparently convinced Vallejo fire investigator William Tweedy to reverse his earlier judgment – unequivocal though it was -- that it was an overheating of the phone enabled by a continuous compression of its buttons that caused the device to ignite. Moreover, Tweedy told me and numerous other reporters that the fire victim's intoxicated state explained why he did not awaken as the phone heated toward ignition. At the time, he ruled out any other possible causes for the fire.

Now he's saying that Nokia has convinced him he was wrong.

From this morning's San Francisco Chronicle:

Under fire department supervision, Nokia's engineers checked the phone's wiring, tested it for short circuits, inserted the existing battery and hit the power button, said Tweedy, who was present during the test.

The phone -- a Nokia 2125i -- turned on.

"The phone didn't short out," Tweedy said. "It didn't overheat. The phone still works even though it's burned ... if the phone had shorted out, it wouldn't have turned on."

Tweedy now says the cause of the fire is unknown and may never be known (the latter certainly being the case if we're depending on William Tweedy to provide the answer).

Meanwhile, sources tell me that the fire victim, 59-year-old Luis Picaso, has retained an attorney who plans to convene a press conference at UC-Davis Medical Center as early as today.

(Update: A press conference will be held this morning at 10 a.m. PST at the Courtyard Marriott at UC Davis Medical Center, according to Atty. Elaine Mandel of Kiesel, Boucher & Larson in Beverly Hills, who says Picaso "was burned when his cell phone caught on fire." Mandel was recently promoted to partner because of her "extraordinary skill in litigating personal injury cases," according to the firm's Web site.)

Perhaps the attorney will announce that she and his client are pleased with the findings of the Nokia experts and subsequent change of heart by fire officials, although that seems even less likely than Tweedy's original explanation for how the phone ignited.

No, the only mystery on the legal side is how long the roster of targets will be for the all-but-inevitable litigation. You can be sure that attorneys for Nokia and the City of Vallejo are on full alert.

It's not possible to overstate how certain Tweedy had been about the phone being the being the ignition point of the fire. He was equally adamant about protecting the name of the manufacturer from being released publicly, telling me it was unfair to single out a particular manufacturer when it could have happened to any cell phone. Why any cell phone? Here's what he said:

"Say you have your cell phone in your pocket and you're leaning up against a chair and you're asleep, and the phone buttons get depressed and phone starts to overheat, you would realize that because you could feel it getting warm in your pocket. If you are intoxicated to the point where you can't feel that or don't realize that's happening, it could be any phone that could (catch fire), not just a specific brand."

"I've got the battery and the battery didn't blow up, nothing like that. I believe that the phone just overheated. It's a 3.2 lithium battery. I can't tell you how long he may have been depressing the buttons. He could have been laying there on the phone for a very long time."

That was then. Now Nokia has him convinced that he was wrong.

More from the Chronicle story:

Tweedy said the fire department called Nokia in because "they offered their electrical engineers to come in and do testing that we can't afford to do."

The investigation is now over, Tweedy said. The original source of the fire will probably remain a mystery.

"He could have been smoking a cigarette, the cigarette fell into his pocket, and it started on fire," said Tweedy. "We don't know that. We weren't there."

William Tweedy wears two hats for the Vallejo Fire Department: He's an on-site fire investigator and public information officer.

What's really clear at this point – perhaps the only thing that is clear in this entire saga – is that the City of Vallejo needs a new on-site fire investigator and a new public information officer.