Cars erupting in flames: BMW mystery

An ABC7 I-Team Investigation

ByJason Knowles and Ann Pistone WLS logo
Thursday, May 11, 2017
Cars erupting in flames: BMW mystery
The I-Team and ABC News are looking into a BMW mystery, dozens of reports of cars erupting into flames, some when they're not even running, from across the country.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The I-Team and ABC News are looking into a BMW mystery, dozens of reports of cars erupting into flames, some when they're not even running, from across the country.

The I-Team has learned of a possible problem in some BMW vehicles. Some of the fires were captured on camera, and the I-Team found Chicago area customers who also say their cars went up in flames.

Kelly Kolep took dramatic photos of her 2000 BMW 5-series, charred. Burned to a crisp.

"What happens if we would have lost our lives? You can't bring us back; you can't bring my children back to me. And that's what I want them to understand," she said before she started crying.

Her husband Tyrone Brown still holds on to the hub caps.

"I was devastated and hurt," he said.

The flames went up, Kolep said, just minutes after she started her car. Fortunately, she and her children were not yet inside. The car was towed to the junkyard.

"Thank god my children were not in that car, otherwise me and my children would not be here today to tell you this story. And it's hard to sit right here and relive that moment," Kopel said.

The Rantoul Fire Department report from June 2015 only says that the "owner stated it stared in the glove box." The fire chief told the I-Team it wasn't arson. Kolep purchased the car used from a dealership 17 months before the fire.

The I-Team and ABC News found dozens of reports of similar BMW fires in the last five years around the country and Canada. Some fires were caught on video in parking lots, some fires set homes on fire.

Some parked BMWs are bursting into flames, even while the ignition is off.

Photos, YouTube videos, reports from fire departments and owner complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. They include different makes and models of BMWs dating as far back as 1999. Some models were under recall for a fire risk; most were not.

BMW said with about 4.9 million vehicles on U.S. roads, fire incidents are very rare.

"The interior was completely demolished," Angel Lopez of Rogers Park said.

The I-Team tracked down Lopez after obtaining a record of his BMW fire report through the U.S. Fire Administration.

"I was like, 'The car just started by itself.' And they were like, that's very suspicious, and I'm like, 'That's what happened," he said.

Like Kolep, Lopez said the fire started in the passenger side glove compartment, but unlike Kolep's car he said his was not running. Like many of the cases, Lopez said his keys weren't even in the ignition.

"The engine may be off but all of the electric power systems that are going to do things like keep that high pressure fuel pump ready," said Sean Kane of the Center for Auto Safety.

Kane said even if the engines are off, the systems are always on in high performance vehicles like BMWs.

ABC News sent its findings to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. While NHTSA said at this time it has found no evidence pointing to a safety defect, the agency is asking for BMW owners who have experienced this issue to reach out to them directly.

"A lot of times these kind of problems get masked or buried into this pool of fire and no direct cause or origin," he said.

BMW said it "takes every incident very seriously and has a dedicated team prepared to work with BMW owners... We have not seen any pattern related to quality or component failure. Vehicle fires can result from a wide variety of external reasons..."

And it said "external factors like poor maintenance, aftermarket changes and even rodent nesting can cause fires."

BMW encourages owners to maintain their cars at authorized BMW dealerships.

Kolep said in the short time she had the car she received oil changes at a nearby mechanic shop, but Lopez said he only brought his car to a BMW-certified mechanic.

"Of course BMW couldn't' do anything about it, it was a used car, now, and they were just no help," Lopez said.

"They won't help us, why?" Kolep wondered.

Kolep said BMW did tell her they would give her a "special deal" if she bought a brand new BMW at a dealership. The I-Team also gave BMW the information of the two consumers featured in this story, but they did not respond to the specific cases.

ABC News and chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross will have more on this story starting Thursday on Good Morning America and on Nightline, finding more cases of BMW fires including reports of a string of incidents in South Korea and what's being done there.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the I-Team a statement, saying:

"The U.S. DOT and NHTSA's focus is on public safety. Motorists are encouraged to report potential safety issues to the agency, including strange and unexplainable incidents involving their vehicles. On NHTSA's website, vehicle owners can send a complaint and upload accompanying photos, police reports, insurance reports and other information that may be relevant. While on the site, owners can also check for open recalls using NHTSA's free look up tool."