What follows is a transcription of the article "Consumption of an Animal Carcass in a Fire", by Bruce V. Ettling, published in: The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Mar., 1969), pp. 131-132.
The transcription is made available free of charge for educational purposes only. This is considered to be fair use.
CONSUMPTION OF AN ANIMAL CARCASS IN A FIRE
BRUCE V. ETTLING
Bruce V. Ettling, Ph.D., is an Associate Chemist with the Research Division of the College of Engineering, Washington State University. He has been engaged in laboratory investigations for local police and fire departments. Of particular interest to him has been the development of echniques for finding hydrocarbon residues from accelerants in arson cases. The present problem of consumption of an animal carcass arose during the latter phases of a study under an OLEA grant involving accelerant residues. – EDITOR.
In the late fall of 1966, a burned out car was found on a remote mountain road near Kamiah, Idaho. The car and its owner had been missing for several weeks. The remains of two bodies that were in the car were so thoroughly consumed by fire that identification by dental records or other usual means was impossible. Questions arose concerning how much fuel would be required to burn the bodies so thoroughly and whether additional fuel had been added during the fire.
At this time an investigation was being conducted* concerning the detection of accelerant residues in fire remains (1, 2). Part of the study was
to involve the deliberate burning of two cars with accelerants so as to give a field check on the method of detecting accelerants. This opportunity was used to observe the burning of an animal body by putting the carcass of a ewe in each car. It was felt that these results might shed some light on the questions raised in the Kamiah investigation.
Two junked automobiles (a Nash and a Plymouth) were set up at the university sanitary fill. The cars contained the normal floor mats, seat cushions, and fabric lining. A ewe weighing approximately 150 pounds was killed and laid on its back on the front seat of the Nash. Six quarts of gasoline were poured in selected locations in the car. After all windows were closed the gasoline was ignited and let burn for about ten seconds. Then the door was shut and the fire allowed to smolder for about thirty minutes until the heat eventually cracked out windows to let in air. The fire was allowed to burn freely for another thirty minutes before being extinguished by the university
fire department. The ewe carcass was examined, and
* United States Department of Justice OLEA Grant # 010.
samples were taken for analysis for accelerant residues.
A second ewe weighing approximately 170 pounds was killed and laid on its back on the front seat of the Plymouth. Eleven quarts of gasoline were poured in selected locations. A window and a door were left open. The gasoline was ignited and allowed to bur freely. After about thirty minutes everything in the car that could burn was consumed except for the carcass. As the rest of the car became cold a modest fire continued around the carcass for more than three hours. The fire was not coming from the carcass itself but from underneath it. The carcass was still suspended on the seat springs with a lot of char and ash underneath. The fat being rendered from the carcass dripped onto the char which acted like a candle wick and kept the fat burning. This burning rendered more fat.
The carcass from the Nash weighed an estimated 120 pounds after burning for a loss of about 30 pounds from the fire. The ends of the legs were
burned off and the fur and skin was burned off on the exposed chest area. There was still much intact wool beneath the surface char on the animal's back and sides.
The carcass remains from the Plymouth weighed an estimated 50 pounds after burning for a loss of about 120 pounds from the fire. The chest and neck were thoroughly consumed. Only the skull and the abdominal and pelvic regions were not completely burned.
The findings showed that for a ewe, and presumably for a human also, the body can be rather thoroughly consumed by fire from its own fat. A necessary condition is that the body be suspended in such a way that it is over the fire which is fed from the body fat. Some related information was found in an article concerning a Nazi extermination camp and its trouble destroying the corpses (3). Burning gasoline on piles of corpses on the ground did not consume the corpses. Eventually an "expert" was brought in who arranged the bodies on a rack with the corpses that appeared to contain some fat being placed on the bottom of the pile. A good fire beneath the rack caused fat to drip down and burn. The corpses which were thus over the fire instead of on the ground were reduced to ashes.
Thus, it is evident that the bodies found in the car in Idaho could have been consumed by their own fire without someone else adding fuel. Also, it becomes possible that the entire incident was accidental. Nicol and Overley (4) showed that a cigarette could burn out a car by smoldering over a
period of time. Such was possible in the Idaho case if the couple had fallen asleep with a lighted cigarette. A smoldering fire could have resulted which asphyxiated the couple. (This is not intended to be a conclusion on the Idaho case since numerous other factors are not considered in this report.)
1. ETTLING, B. V. AND M. F. ADAMS, The Study of Accelerant Residues in Fire Remains, FIRST SYMPOSIUMON LAW ENFORCEM1ESNCTIE NCEA ND
TECHNOLOGY. , A. YEFSKY, ed., 1, pp. 337-346, 1967.
2. ETTLINGB, B. V. AND M. F. ADAMS, The Study of Accelerant Residues in Fire Remains, 13 JOURNAL OF FORENSICSC IENCE7,6 -89
3. STEINER, JEAN-FRANCIS, THE REVOLTA AT TREBLINKA, Simon and Shuster, 1967.
4. NICOL, JOSEPH AND LEE OVERLEY, Combustibility of Automobiles: Results of Total Burning, 54 JOURNAL OF CRIMINAL LAW, CRIMINOLOGY AND POLICE SCIENCE, 366-367, 1963.