Volume 46, Issue 5 (September 2001)
Sustained Combustion of an Animal Carcass and Its Implications for the Consumption of Human Bodies in Fires
When a human body is found with significant portions of its torso and limbs destroyed yet with comparatively minor damage to head, hands and feet, the mechanism of such destruction defies ready explanation, since exposure to external fires, particularly those involving flammable liquids, usually results in the destruction of hands, feet, limbs, and head prior to significant combustion of the large mass of the torso. Previous tests by these authors have demonstrated the conditions necessary to promote combustion of a body: the presence of adequate body fat, presence of a porous, rigid char to act as a wick, and an external flame source sustained for several minutes to char the body and cause the subcutaneous fat to begin rendering.
In the test reported here, a freshly-slaughtered pig carcass with a net weight of 215 lb. (95 kg) was wrapped in a cotton blanket and placed on a carpet-covered plywood panel. The fire was initiated using 1 L of gasoline poured on the shoulder area of the blanketwrapped carcass. The gasoline burned off within 4 min, having ignited a large area of the blanket and adjoining carpet. Flames from those fuel packages resulted in the establishment of a steady-state fire sustained by the rendering of the body fat, with the necessary wick provided by the charred cotton blanket and carpet. The heat release rate of this fire was 60 ± 10 kW, with flames less than 12 in. (0.35 m) high for its duration. The fire sustained itself by the rendering process for more than 6½ h from ignition, at which time it was extinguished. An average mass loss rate of 1.5 g/s (5.3 kg/h) was observed during the self-sustained fire. Extensive destruction of the carcass (more than 60% by weight) included reduction of large bones to a fragile, ashen state. Other test data will demonstrate the similarity between subcutaneous fat from human and porcine sources. The implications for the reconstruction of accidental and homicidal fires involving such destruction will be discussed.