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Playing With Fire: Inside the World’s Largest Fire-Science Laboratory
Inside the ATF’s lab, researchers recreate infernos to find clues hidden in the ashes that can bring the guilty to justice and set the innocent free. By Michael Gaynor
Staffers at the ATF Fire Research Laboratory in Beltsville have set fire to multistory buildings, trailers, and, one time, several Corvettes. Photograph by Melissa Golden.
Comments () | Published November 6, 2012

Late at night on February 14, 2012—Valentine’s Day—a fire broke out at the Comayagua Farm Prison in central Honduras. For 40 minutes, the flames consumed ten barracks designed to house about 50 inmates each. On the night of the fire, close to twice that many prisoners were locked in the cells. By morning, 361 were dead.

The next day, a Honduran newspaper reported that an inmate had called the Comayaguan governor that night, threatening to burn the place down. Others accused prison guards of starting the fire. In a dilapidated and overcrowded prison, in the country with the world’s highest murder rate, neither scenario seemed far-fetched.

The Honduran government asked the United States for help with the investigation, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives—known as ATF—assigned its International Response Team to the scene.

When John Allen, a member of that team, arrived at the prison, he saw hundreds of people standing outside the gates. They were family members of the dead, town residents, and witnesses to the devastation.

Allen watched the crowd part as a Humvee full of armed guards—ATF’s protection—led them through the gates. Deep scorches climbed the barracks’ walls. Soot, ash, and burned metal littered the ground, each piece of debris stained black. Allen stepped under the yellow police tape and walked into a tent for a briefing.

The Comayaguan chief of police spoke first. Through an interpreter, he described his version of events—where the fire had started and how it had spread. Then the local fire marshal said his piece. The stories didn’t match.

“This was four days after the fire, and they couldn’t agree on anything,” says Allen. “It was very apparent right then why we were there.”

Allen had seen this kind of thing before. Bad science has plagued arson investigations, both in the US and abroad: Anecdotal evidence, faulty assumptions, and outright myths have distorted the reality of how fires burn and the supposed telltale signs of an intentional blaze.

Allen is chief of ATF’s Fire Research Laboratory in Beltsville, which arms investigators with the latest tools for uncovering the truth behind each inferno. It’s the world’s largest fire-science laboratory, and since 2003 it has done pioneering research by recreating large-scale burns in its vast test chamber.

With conflicting stories and rumors to sort through, Allen would need that scientific arsenal to find out what really happened in Honduras.

“So,” he says, “we got to work.”

• • •

At a typical crime scene, the presence of a dead body, drugs, or stolen goods leaves no doubt that wrongdoing has taken place. But when Allen approaches a burned-down building, it isn’t immediately clear whether what happened was an accident or a crime. The very nature of fire is to obscure, to eliminate evidence, motives, and meanings. Yet if you look closely enough, a story is written in the ashes of each scene.

Until recently, fire investigation was largely the arena of myths and old wives’ tales.

“They called it the art of fire investigation instead of the science of fire investigation,” says Allen, who began his career as an electrical engineer in regulatory compliance, testing products for fire shock and safety. He says arson investigators were usually firefighters who’d been promoted up the ladder without any scientific training. They relied on what their predecessors had taught them.

Investigators were taught to look for evidence such as “crazed glass,” a spider-web pattern of small cracks in a window that was said to indicate a rapid rise in temperature, which only accelerants like kerosene or gasoline could produce. But experiments since then have proven that crazed glass is actually caused by the rapid cooling of a window—or more simply, the blast from a firefighter’s hose.

One fire in 1990 would become a seminal moment in the field of arson investigation. After a fire tore through his two-story home in Jacksonville, Florida, Gerald Wayne Lewis was charged with setting the blaze and murdering his wife and five other family members.

The signs were all there: “alligatoring,” large blisters on the wooden floorboards that could appear only in a fast-burning, accelerant-fueled fire; burn marks on the floor known as “pour patterns,” the black signature of what was once a puddle of gasoline. Lewis claimed the fire was started by his three-year-old son, who was playing with matches near the couch, but next to the door, a V-shaped burn—an indicator of where the fire began—told investigators a different story.

Lewis’s wife had taken out a restraining order against him, and their divorce hearing was scheduled for three days from the night of the fire. Police learned that he had threatened to burn the house down before. They told Lewis they intended to seek the death penalty.

Before they did, prosecutors brought on two fire experts—John Lentini, a fire investigator in Georgia, and John DeHaan, a fire-investigation-textbook author—to bolster their case. When DeHaan saw that there was a condemned, nearly identical house next to Lewis’s, they decided to recreate the fire to prove that the suspect’s version of events couldn’t be true.

They brought in furnishings identical to the ones that were in Lewis’s home, including a living-room couch just like the one where he claimed the blaze had started. Without using any accelerants, Lentini and DeHaan lit the couch, expecting the fire to take as long as 20 minutes to consume the room. Instead, it took four.

When the fire was extinguished, investigators once again saw all the supposed signs of an arson case. But no accelerant that would have caused the alligator blisters had been used, no gasoline where the pour patterns appeared, and no V shape by the couch, where they started the fire.

All charges against Gerald Wayne Lewis were dropped.

Lentini went on to become a renowned fire expert who has testified in hundreds of trials. He says that case changed his outlook.

“I became persuaded that the track record for arson investigation was so miserable that I believe every fire should be first approached as an accident,” he says. “[Innocent] people end up with their insurance claims denied or in jail with their lives ruined.”

Of the Lewis case, Lentini says: “I was ready to help the prosecution send him to Old Sparky until that test.”

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Posted at 11:45 AM/ET, 11/06/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles