AUSTIN, Texas - An image of the Tarrytown Shell station on Exposition, taken at 1:21 a.m. Thursday morning, shows little to no activity. An instant later is the moment when a Tesla sedan slammed into a set of gas tanks. Under the car, flames from exploding lithium batteries created an orange glow.
The driver, who was not immediately identified, survived but was charged with DWI. When the gas pumps fell, flames coming from the passenger side of the Tesla can be seen. About a minute later, sparks erupt as more batteries ignite in what’s called a thermal runaway.
It was a situation Austin firefighters were prepared for, according to Division Chief Eddie Martinez. "We've known about these for quite a while. It’s just, in the City of Austin, as far as I know, this is our first one, specifically with a Tesla," he said.
A picture shows fire crews in tactical positions for what was a long fight. The fire burned all the way to the car's frame, but lithium batteries can play possum and re-ignite. A warning Martinez says was given to the tow truck driver.
"And it did, so 5 hours later the car caught on fire again. But he took our warning and he put it away from vegetation and put it away from other vehicles, so it didn't catch anything else on fire," said Martinez.
The fire that happened here is expected to be discussed during a training session Austin Fire Fighters will have next week. That class will be taught by The Woodlands Fire Chief Palmer Buck, who has become somewhat of an expert on Tesla Fires.
"These car fires can be managed, we will see a lot more of them, in the future," said Chief Buck.
A fatal crash in April is an example of how difficult the job can be. It took TWFD more than 28,000 gallons of water to keep the charred battery pack cool. That allowed investigators to work without having another thermal runaway.
"Just doing all the research, it still comes back to, the basics of, water but a lot of water. There is not any, at this point, any easily obtainable extinguishing agent on the market to deal with these fires. it all goes back to the way the cars are engineered with the battery pack being at the bottom of the car, and encased in a titanium shell, so you really can't gain access to it, you just have to sit back and pour water on it," said Chief Buck.