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Rho, Yong-Myun and Hoffman, Donald B. The Investigation Of Fatal Fires: Views Of the Medical Examiner and Toxicologist (Conclusion). FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. Vol. 55, No. 9. September 1986. pp. 1-8.

Abstract: This article describes the role of the pathologist and the techniques they use to examine victims of a fire. The most important responsibility of the pathologist is to determine whether the victim was dead or alive when the fire began.

Respiration is an indicator that the victim was alive when the fire began. If the victim was breathing during the fire there will be signs of inhaled smoke and other products of combustion in the lungs and trachea. The upper airway may be covered with soot and internal organs may be bright red as a result of carbon monoxide saturation. A complete autopsy should be performed to rule out any traumatic cause of death or any natural cause of death, such as physical exertion or severe emotional stress.

The article explains procedures to help determine a severely burned victim's identity. Bodies burned beyond recognition will still have characteristics that may identify the person. Medical examiners usually rely on dental records to identify severely burned victims. The article lists other techniques that may be used to identify bodies when dental records are not an option.

The article also devotes a section to the toxicological aspects of a victim's examination. In addition to providing evidence as to whether the victim was alive at the time of the fire, the toxicology report will also reveal the presence of accelerant residues in the victim's body. The article explains how to interpret different residues that may be found.

For more information, contact:
FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
FBI Academy
Madison Building, Room 209
Quantico, VA 22135

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