Interpreting patterns of injury in victims of fire-related deaths poses challenges for forensic investigators. Determining manner of death (accident, suicide or homicide) using charred remains is compounded by the thermal distortion and fragmentation of soft and skeletal tissues. Heat degrades thin cranial structures and obscures the characteristic signatures of perimortem ballistic, blunt, and sharp force trauma in bone, making ifferentiation from thermal trauma difficult. This study documents the survivability and features of traumatic injury through all stages of burning for soft tissue reduction and organic degradation of cranial bone.
Forty cadaver heads were burned in environments simulating forensic fires. Progression of thermal degradation was photographically documented throughout the destructive stages for soft tissues and bone to establish expected burn sequence patterns for the head. In addition to testing intact vaults, a percentage were selectively traumatized to introduce the variables of soft tissue disruption, fractures, impact marks, and incisions throughout the cremation process. Skeletal materials were recovered, reconstructed, and correlated with photographs to discern burn patterns and survivability of traumatic features.
This study produced two important results: (1) Identification of preexistent trauma is possible in reconstructed burned cranial bone. Signatures of ballistic (internal and external bevel, secondary fractures), blunt force (impact site, radiating fractures), and sharp force (incisions, stabs, sectioning) survive the cremation process. (2) In non-traumatized specimens, the skull does not explode from steam pressure but does fragment as a result of external forces (collapsed debris, extinguishment methods) and handling. The features of both results are sequentially described thr throughout the progression of thermal destruction.
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