A day before e-scooter company Skip will have a chance to argue that its devices are safe to ride on San Francisco streets, a former worker has come forward with new details about its scooters bursting into flames.
Photographs obtained Wednesday by the San Francisco Examiner show the charred remains of at least two Skip e-scooters that the worker said burned to a crisp in the back of a passenger van in Golden Gate Park last October.
Revelation of the incident marks the latest in a number of Skip e-scooter fires around the nation, and the second known in San Francisco. The company has publicly claimed one of those fires, in Washington D.C., was an “isolated incident.”
The most recent fire showered sparks on the head of one of Skip’s workers, he said.
“I heard something like an explosion,” said Zacarias Lins, a 25-year-old native of Brazil who was loading scooters into his van near the Japanese Tea Garden when one of them combusted shortly after 11 p.m. on Oct. 5, 2019.
The fire quickly engulfed the van in flames before firefighters responded and extinguished the blaze, police confirmed.
Fire officials later concluded that the blaze was caused by possible equipment failure involving the ignition or battery component of a scooter, according to San Francisco Fire Department records and spokesperson Jonathan Baxter.
“The SFFD concluded that the electrical components of the scooter contributed to the fire,” Baxter told the Examiner.
But Skip disputed that the e-scooters are to blame.
“The scope of what I saw did not seem consistent with that conclusion that it burst into flames,” said Skip CEO and founder Sanjay Dastoor, who added that the fire remains under investigation by the company.
The news comes the day before a planned Thursday hearing at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency on whether Skip should be permitted to operate in The City.
Skip operated in San Francisco under an SFMTA pilot program from 2018 until 2019. But the company did not make the cut when the SFMTA awarded operating permits for its permanent program last September.
The SFMTA found that Skip failed to properly fill out a key section of its application for the permit, where a company made a commitment to “ensure that devices are safe for operation” and to handle safety issues once discovered.
But Dastoor countered that Skip answered that question in other parts of the application, and “exceeded what other companies” promised from a battery and device safety perspective in “many ways.”
Regardless of the application issue, Skip received low evaluation scores from SFMTA. The agency said the company exemplified “unexceptional solutions” and a “moderate level of commitment.”
Their scores in this application were beat out by five other companies including Spin, Scoot, Lime and Jump, which were awarded permits.
Last June, Skip pulled its devices off the streets after a scooter battery erupted in flames on a sidewalk in Washington, D.C.
Shortly after, the Examiner reported that a scooter had also caught fire at the company’s warehouse in San Francisco’s Bayview District in December 2018.
Dastoor said Skip “pulled that fleet immediately.” The company’s newer e-scooters, including the ones involved in the Golden Gate Park blaze, are not the same type.
A “black box” from the e-scooters showed they were not carrying a battery charge, Dastoor said. Without battery power, Dastoor said it was unlikely they were the cause of the fire.
But Dastoor admitted he would need to see the actual scooters to be sure.
Lins, the Skip worker who witnessed the fire, has long labored in the gig-economy as an independent contractor with few worker protections.
First trying gig work for both Amazon and Google as a delivery driver, the Pacifica resident later heard about lucrative work for e-scooter company Skip.
As a “ranger,” in Skip parlance, he was tasked with gathering e-scooters from around The City, charging them at home, then returning them to the streets the next morning.
To perform this work he purchased a used white van for $8,000. He said he cleared out his savings account to do so.
In October, Skip had already lost the contest to become a permanent e-scooter operator, but the vehicles were still on the streets.
Lins had just loaded up the two-wheelers in his van and walked to the passenger side when he heard the “explosion.”
“It was like ‘boom!’ you know?” Lins said.
He jumped into his front seat to retrieve his phone so he could call 911. He said sparks from the e-scooter hit his head.
Police confirmed some of the details from the incident and said officers met with the owner of the van.
“Officers located a van on fire,” said Officer Adam Lobsinger, a police spokesperson. “The victim told officers that he was loading a scooter into the back of a van when it caught fire, causing the van to catch fire as well.”
“The SFFD Arson Task Force responded to the scene and determined the fire was not suspicious in nature,” Lobsinger said.
The van destroyed, Lins sought compensation from his insurer, which said Skip must pay for the damage.
But Skip has yet to do so, Lins said.
“I put my money to work for them and now it left me with nothing. I feel mad about it,” Lins said.
A Skip spokesperson said they offered and provided coverage for a rental car pending their investigation, and that Lins had not provided the team with title information or the location of where the van was impounded.
Dastoor, Skip’s founder, said his company must conclude its investigation before paying Lin for his van, because Skip may not be liable.
“If a house burned down and had a scooter in it, we wouldn’t pay you back for the house,” he said.
Dastoor said his company has not been able to access the vehicle or the scooters to complete its investigation.
Meanwhile, Lins has found a new gig driving for Uber and Lyft.
Ferrying passengers in San Francisco earns him money enough so “I can live. It’s not bad.”
He took out a $9,000 loan so he could pay for his Uber and Lyft car — another investment in San Francisco’s ever growing gig-economy.