Volume 46, Issue 3 (May 2001)
Entrapment in Small, Enclosed Spaces: A Case Report and Points to Consider Regarding the Mechanism of Death
The mechanism of death due to confinement in an enclosed space is usually ascribed to asphyxia from oxygen deprivation. We report the case of the decomposed remains of a 23-year-old man discovered in an unused industrial size refrigerator in which the mechanism of death is heatstroke. The investigation of the death indicates the subject most likely voluntarily entered the refrigerator and for unknown reasons, closed the door. Injuries identified at autopsy and damage to the inside of the structure indicate he struggled to exit the cabinet. The autopsy shows no significant natural disease processes and toxicology studies were negative. The diagnosis of heat stroke typically rests on the evaluation of multiple features, including the age and size of the decedent, the ambient temperature, the medical history of the decedent, whole body hydration, body fat content, alcohol and drug use, medication history, general physical condition, and many other factors. The diagnosis of heatstroke due to confinement in an enclosed container requires evaluation of the heat stress of the container, the heat strain experienced by the individual, autopsy findings suggesting signs of a struggle to exit the container, and other factors. In all such cases, a careful death investigation with correlation of autopsy findings is required to accurately determine the mechanism and cause of death. We suggest that for all such deaths, physiological and environmental factors promoting hyperthermia and heatstroke be considered as a possible mechanism of death, along with those associated with the more obvious danger of asphyxiation.