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Burns, Fire and Arson Deaths and Injuries

Pointers and common errors

Patrick E. Besant-Matthews, M.D.

Fires are often set to conceal homicide, suicide, or obscure identity, and to try to cover up other criminal activities such as theft or searching for drugs and valuables. Never assume that all fire related deaths are accidental, because many are not.

What should you note during the autopsy on a fire or burn victim? The simple answer is that you should try to note everything you would normally note during an autopsy examination, less those items that have been obscured or altered by fire. Then make additional notes on how the fire affected the body.

For instance, if time of death should be an issue, and if the body was heated for a while to an unknown degree in a fire, you obviously cannot rely on body temperature! Likewise you can't answer questions about temperature after a body has been cooled. Don't laugh, I've seen and photographed a body packed in a bag of ice, accompanied by a note stating the local temperature that day, and asking questions about the time of death!

I will assume that there are no "complications" such as hazardous chemicals or nuclear radiation to disturb or delay our routine. I will therefore proceed on the basis that we have a dead body, that was found after a fire was suppressed, or a burned living person to examine.

Common Errors and Misinterpretations include:

The body is severely charred and reduced in overall size and weight, so it's not worth performing an autopsy.

This is a classic mistake.

"There is no body so badly burned, or decomposed, that it does not deserve an autopsy". (Charles P. Larson, M.D., Tacoma, WA. - deceased.)

A steak may be charred on the outside, but the inner parts, especially if the meat is thick, may still be edible after we have cut the overcooked outer portions away. Likewise in the case of bodies, the outside can be blackened and parts of the limbs completely destroyed, while the inner parts remain comparatively well preserved, frequently allowing us ample opportunity to:

  • Draw blood, urine and bile.
  • Make identification.
  • Decide if the person was alive or dead at the time of the fire
  • Determine the cause and manner of death.
  • Teeth are relatively hard to destroy and are particularly valuable in making identification, provided we have an idea who the dead person(s) might be, and can make contact with any dentist who provided treatment during life. This is because there are 32 adult teeth, each of which have five surfaces (biting, inside, outside, back and front). Thus, the mathematical odds of any two people having the same combination of absent teeth, and restorations of various kinds, involving the 160 different tooth surfaces is extremely small. Even the shape of the roots can establish identity.

Note that the examination should be as complete as it can be in the circumstances. Obviously you cannot examine a forearm and hand if the limb is missing below elbow level, but never make the serious mistake of doing a "partial autopsy". Partial means other than total or whole, and thus incomplete. For example, failing to open the head, to look for brain damage.

Heat causes shrinkage, in effect a contraction, of muscles.

This is like steak shrinking as it is cooked. There are several variations and possibilities for error:

  1. If a body is heated on one side, in just the right way, it will bend towards the side exposed to the heat because the muscle (and skin) contract on the heated side.
  2. Generalized heating often leads to the so-called pugilistic or boxing-like position. This results from the fact that our bending (flexor) muscles are usually stronger and bigger then our straightening (extensor) muscles, so the stronger muscles "win" when both groups are heated.
  3. Limb muscles can contract, giving rise to changes of position. Bodies may tilt, tip or even fall from the edge of a bed or a chair as heating causes muscles to pull on, and move, various joints.
  4. When the above (a, b and c) are combined, they may lead to faulty estimates of position and what a person might have been doing at the time of a crash (holding the steering wheel or operating aircraft controls?), whereas in fact you usually can't tell if that part has been heated.
  5. When muscles congeal and/or tighten, the body parts go stiff. This can be mistaken by the untrained for rigor mortis (the stiffness resulting from build up of acidity and allied chemical changes in unheated muscle). Unlike normal rigor, any stiffness due to heat has no value in estimating the time of death, nor does it pass away after a while like rigor mortis, any more than meat returns to the consistency it had prior to cooking.
  6. On occasion, the contraction of muscles can be forceful enough to cause breaks in long bones.
  7. Combine some skin tightening, some muscular contraction and some body bending with unthinking/careless measurement of body length, and you can easily come up 1 to 3 inches short of the actual living stature. This has potential for misidentification and further confusion.
  8. Note that fires have occurred in funeral homes, and embalmed bodies have converted from their usual position, on the preparation table or in a casket, to an altered, contracted, semi- crouching, boxer-like position.

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*Article submitted by the author

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    It is the intention of this Guide to acquaint a broad spectrum of public safety personnel with the fire investigation process, so they may understand their role in this important task and help identify, locate, and preserve evidence in its varied forms, to either assist a specialist investigator when one is needed or to adequately document and collect evidence when no assistance is needed or available. This Guide focuses on the documentation and collection of physical evidence at fire/arson scenes.

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