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Sustained Combustion of an Animal Carcass and Its Implications for the Consumption of Human Bodies in Fires

NCJ Number
Journal of Forensic Sciences Volume: 46 Issue: 5 Dated: September 2001 Pages: 1076-1081
John D. DeHaan Ph.D.; Said Nurbakhsh Ph.D.
Date Published
September 2001
6 pages
This article reported the results of the self-sustained combustion of an animal carcass and its implications for the reconstruction of accidental and homicidal fires involving human bodies.
Previous explanations of the human bodies exposure to external fires, specifically involving flammable liquids usually resulted in the destruction of hands, feet, limbs, and head prior to the combustion of the large mass of the torso. However, it was found that when the human body was found with significant portions of its torso and limbs destroyed with comparatively minor damage to the head, hands, and feet it contradicted the previous explanation. Previous tests demonstrated the conditions necessary to promote combustion of a body: (1) the presence of adequate body fat; (2) presence of a porous, rigid char to act as a wick; and (3) an external flame source sustained for several minutes to char the body and cause the subcutaneous fat to begin rendering. In this test, a freshly slaughtered pig carcass, with a weight of 215 pounds was wrapped in a cotton blanket and placed on a carpet-covered plywood panel. It was set on fire using 1 L of gasoline poured on the shoulder area of the blanket wrapped carcass. The fire sustained itself for more than 6.5 h from ignition and then was extinguished. An average mass loss rate of 1.5 g/s was observed during the self-sustained fire. Extensive destruction of the carcass (more than 60 percent by weight) included reduction of large bones to a fragile, ashen state. It was demonstrated that given a source of external ignition of some duration (10 to 15 minutes or longer) such as a fire in clothing or bedding, the skin of a body can char and split and the melted subcutaneous fat be released. The portions of a body that do not have an adequate supply of subcutaneous fat, such as the distal limbs, will not support continuous combustion. Graphs