'Burned bone' research continues with mock fire near Philadelphia

The Applied Forensic Sciences Department at Mercyhurst College continues its landmark research into the recovery and interpretation of burned human remains from fatal fire scenes with a mock fire and excavation in Montgomery County, Pa., this weekend.

Representatives of the department were on site last week when area fire officials conducted a controlled burn of a modular home at the Hickory Park Campgrounds, 2140 Big Road, Gilbertsville, Pa. Before the structure was set ablaze, the Mercyhurst advance team had planted evidence, such as knives, shell casings and culled pig cadavers (to simulate human fire victims). Some of the pigs’ bones were marked with knife and saw blades.

The team’s charge Saturday will be to sift through the charred rubble to retrieve evidence, while testing and documenting the most effective methodologies for optimal scene recovery and subsequent laboratory analysis. The project is one of three Mercyhurst forensic research initiatives for which the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) allocated nearly $1 million in 2008.

The Mercyhurst team, which includes department chair Dr. Dennis Dirkmaat and Dr. Steven Symes, Pennsylvania’s only board-certified forensic anthropologists; and alumnus Greg Olson, a fire investigator from Canada; will lecture Friday to nearly 35 members of the Pennsylvania Association of Arson Investigators (PAAI) as part of their visit downstate. The audience includes fire investigators from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware, coroners and a representative of the Montgomery County District Attorney’s staff, according to PAAI training coordinator Brent Frain.

Frain said his group will also observe the excavation on Saturday, which is expected to begin at 8 a.m. and continue throughout the afternoon. Assisting Mercyhurst faculty in the research effort will be 13 graduate students and five undergraduates from Mercyhurst’s forensic anthropology program.

Recovering burned human remains and analyzing them for evidence of trauma is a daunting forensic task, but one that is crucial to determining whether a fatal fire scene is consistent with an accident, a suicide, or, as all too commonly happens, a cover-up for murder, Dirkmaat explained.

Victim remains at fatal fire scenes are typically difficult to detect, recover and handle, he said. Bones, in particular, become discolored, brittle and fragmented. So, the remains are often missed, disturbed or even destroyed during scene processing with the existing protocols.

If you take the time to carefully expose the evidence using strict archaeological recovery methods, there is a great deal of information that can be gathered,” Dirkmaat said.
In an effort to strengthen those protocols, particularly in assessing the remains for trauma of forensic significance, the Mercyhurst team has already collaborated with fire authorities in Erie, Pittsburgh, and in Canada on four other controlled burns.

The NIJ is expected to use the research to develop standards for investigating devastating fires involving human remains. Such standards don’t currently exist, Dirkmaat said.

“This is a great opportunity for us to participate in important research and be able to ultimately put it to work in the field,” Frain said.
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