Mattress fires and their effect on the destruction and distribution of remains in a house-fire setting
Maximillian S. Viatori
Forensically, burned and cremated remains are encountered on a fairly regular basis; owing their presence to both the relatively high fire death rate in the United States, and the continued (and mistaken) belief that human remains can be rendered unidentifiable or completely destroyed through burning. In many cases it is necessary to recover and identify remains from residential fires, with the goal being to identify the deceased and to determine the sequence of events leading up to and during the fire.
This research addresses the very specific scenario of fire fatalities that involve bed-settings with regards to how (and if) they contribute to the enhanced destruction of a body and dispersal of skeletal remains during structural collapse. In order to answer these questions, I first investigated the limited contribution of a mattress alone to the burning of a body. By burning pig (Sus scrofa or Sus domestica) carcasses in a controlled environment, I determined that a mattress does not significantly damage the body to the point where identification would be hindered. In order to address the issue of dispersal of skeletal remains in a realistic setting, a single-story house was burned with the cooperation of a local fire department. Inside the home, five mattress settings were constructed, with the addition of three controls where the remains were placed directly on the floor. The house was burned with limited interference, resulting in a fire lasting over ninety minutes and reaching temperatures in excess of 1800oF (980oC). Using standard recovery techniques, 3,637 skeletal specimens were recovered, mapped, identified (if possible), and analyzed for change in color and fractures. Once all remains were cataloged, comparisons were made between mattress and floor specimens, as well as in a room-by-room fashion, to determine the effects of fire exposure and boney distribution. These comparisons demonstrated that remains placed on mattresses burn more completely, with a greater number of skeletal elements being recovered showing advanced degradation. They were also more widely distributed, especially in the areas that collapsed into an underlying space, such as a basement. Remains placed on the floor tended to remain mostly intact, with boney exposure limited to the cranium, thorax, and limbs. While these observations may be limited to this specific fire scenario, these trends may aid investigators in their understanding of how mattresses can affect the fate of skeletal remains during a residential fire.