1944, Apr 14:  Explosion on cargo ship rocks Bombay, India

The cargo ship Fort Stikine explodes in a berth in the docks of Bombay, India, killing 1,300 people and injuring another 3,000 on April 14 in 1944. As it occurred during World War II, some initially claimed that the massive explosion was caused by Japanese sabotage; in fact, it was a tragic accident.

The Fort Stikine was a Canadian-built steamship weighing 8,000 tons. It left Birkenhead, England, on February 24 and stopped in Karachi, Pakistan, before docking at Bombay. The ship was carrying hundreds of cotton bales, gold bullion and, most notably, 300 tons of trinitrotoluene, better known as TNT or dynamite. Inexplicably, the cotton was stored one level below the dynamite, despite the well-known fact that cotton bales were prone to combustion.

In the middle of loading, smoke was seen coming from the cotton bales and firefighters were sent to investigate. However, emergency measures, such as flooding that part of the ship, were not taken. Instead, about 60 firefighters tried to put out the fire with hoses throughout the afternoon. Unfortunately, the TNT was not unloaded during the firefighting efforts.

Eventually, the firefighters were ordered off the ship but kept dousing the fire from the docks. Their efforts were in vain; the TNT was ignited, and at 4:07 p.m., the resulting explosion rocked the bay area. The force of the blast actually lifted a nearby 4,000-ton ship from the bay onto land. Windows a mile away were shattered. A 28-pound gold bar from the Fort Stikine, worth many thousands of dollars, was found a mile away. Everyone in close vicinity of the ship was killed.

Twelve other ships at the docks were destroyed and many more were seriously damaged. Fires broke out all over the port, causing further explosions. Military troops were brought in to fight the raging fires and some buildings were demolished to stop it from spreading. The main business center of Bombay was not safe for three days after the explosion.

Source: History.com
Image credit: Library of Congress

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire – March 25, 1911

In one of the darkest moments of America’s industrial history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in New York City burns down, killing 145 workers, on March 25, 1911. The tragedy led to the development of a series of laws and regulations that better protected the safety of factory workers.

The Triangle factory, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, was located in the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building in downtown Manhattan. It was a sweatshop in every sense of the word: a cramped space lined with work stations and packed with poor immigrant workers, mostly teenaged women who did not speak English. At the time of the fire, there were four elevators with access to the factory floors, but only one was fully operational and it could hold only 12 people at a time. There were two stairways down to the street, but one was locked from the outside to prevent theft by the workers and the other opened inward only. The fire escape, as all would come to see, was shoddily constructed, and could not support the weight of more than a few women at a time.

Blanck and Harris already had a suspicious history of factory fires. The Triangle factory was twice scorched in 1902, while their Diamond Waist Company factory burned twice, in 1907 and in 1910. It seems that Blanck and Harris deliberately torched their workplaces before business hours in order to collect on the large fire-insurance policies they purchased, a not uncommon practice in the early 20th century. While this was not the cause of the 1911 fire, it contributed to the tragedy, as Blanck and Harris refused to install sprinkler systems and take other safety measures in case they needed to burn down their shops again.

Added to this delinquency were Blanck and Harris’ notorious anti-worker policies. Their employees were paid a mere $15 a week, despite working 12 hours a day, every day. When the International Ladies Garment Workers Union led a strike in 1909 demanding higher pay and shorter and more predictable hours, Blanck and Harris’ company was one of the few manufacturers who resisted, hiring police as thugs to imprison the striking women, and paying off politicians to look the other way.

On March 25, a Saturday afternoon, there were 600 workers at the factory when a fire broke out in a rag bin on the eighth floor. The manager turned the fire hose on it, but the hose was rotted and its valve was rusted shut. Panic ensued as the workers fled to every exit. The elevator broke down after only four trips, and women began jumping down the shaft to their deaths. Those who fled down the wrong set of stairs were trapped inside and burned alive. Other women trapped on the eighth floor began jumping out the windows, which created a problem for the firefighters whose hoses were crushed by falling bodies. Also, the firefighters’ ladders stretched only as high as the seventh floor, and their safety nets were not strong enough to catch the women, who were jumping three at a time.

Blanck and Harris were on the building’s top floor with some workers when the fire broke out. They were able to escape by climbing onto the roof and hopping to an adjoining building.

The fire was out within half an hour, but not before 49 workers had been killed by the fire, and another 100 or so were piled up dead in the elevator shaft or on the sidewalk. The workers’ union organized a march on April 5 to protest the conditions that led to the fire; it was attended by 80,000 people.

Though Blanck and Harris were put on trial for manslaughter, they managed to get off scot-free. Still, the massacre for which they were responsible did finally compel the city to enact reform. In addition to the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law passed that October, the New York Democratic set took up the cause of the worker and became known as a reform party.

Source: History.com

Plasma Ashing as a Fire Investigative Tool

Mark Goodson PE
Lee Green PE
Michael Shuttlesworth PE
Goodson Engineering
Denton, Texas USA

Presented at International Symposium on Fire Investigation, 2014

One of the difficulties that has faced engineers who examine electrical or mechanical items and / or devices after a fire is that of cleaning the item. The key adage in cleaning is essentially a medical command – primum non nocere, or “do no harm.” The cleaning technique will preferably cause no damage to the artefact being examined. Successful cleaning allows for both microscopic, visual, and SEM / EDX analysis.

In a fire, it is not uncommon for fire artefacts (wires, as an example) to require cleaning. Historical cleaning techniques have relied upon ultrasonic cleaning as a means for debris removal. Ultrasonic cleaning makes use of mechanical (sonic) energy to cause debris to dislodge from artefacts. How successful this technique is depends (in part) upon the energy imparted, the solvent used, and the interface between the wire and the debris. In the case of partially pyrolyzed PVC insulation, there are conditions that occur (depending upon the state or extent of pyrolysis) where no amount of mechanical agitation will remove the fire debris.

Oxides can be removed from wires by the use of surfactants or cleaners, some of which can have an etching effect on the metal. Treatments such as Alconox  or Simple Green  sometimes work sufficiently, while a more aggressive oxide remover (Branson OR)  relies on citric acid to help clean the wires. With more aggressive reagents, the user runs the risk of etching the metal and ruining the surface finish.

The writers describe a technique for removing fire debris from metal objects (wire, CSST) for use in removing fire debris. The technique is referred to as plasma ashing . In plasma ashing, a vacuum is created around the artefact, and a carrier gas is introduced (such as O2). An RF field (13.56 MHz) is applied, and the oxygen takes on a monatomic state. Essentially, a plasma i s created, and the monatomic O is free to react with organics associated with the fire debris. This process is also referred to as a glow discharge . The end result is that organics are removed from the artefact, and the ashing takes place at low temperatures – sufficiently low such that grain structure of the metal is not changed. This technique is essentially what is used in one of the manufacturing steps for making integrated circuits (ICs). As such, it imparts sufficiently low energy such that crystalline semiconductor structures are not damaged.

We compare and contrast plasma ashing with other modalities of cleaning. More particularly, we note (through visual microscopy) the efficacy of ashing and ultrasonic cleaning, as well as material removal rates. We show that despite its relative expensive capital costs, ashing represents a cleaning technique that does what other modalities fail to do – consistent removal of organic debris with no damage to the underlying substrate.

Download the complete paper here

1984, Feb 25:  Explosion kills hundreds in Brazil

On February 25, 1984, a huge explosion destroys a shantytown in Brazil, killing at least 500 people, mostly young children. An investigation into the disaster later revealed that the true death count was impossible to know because so many bodies had in effect been cremated in the intense blaze.

The shantytown in Cubatao, 30 miles southeast of Sao Paulo, was known as the Vila Soco favela. Approximately 9,000 people had set up makeshift homes on land that was owned by Petrobas, the state-run oil monopoly. Gas pipelines operated by Petrobas ran next to the slum. When workers opened the wrong pipeline on February 24, highly combustible octane gas poured into the ditches of Vila Soco. Soon after midnight, an explosion was sparked, and a fireball ripped through the favela. Some homes were literally thrown hundreds of feet into the air; others were instantly incinerated. The temperature at the heart of the fireball was estimated at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.

A day later, only 86 bodies had been recovered. None of the remains were of children below the age of seven, though investigators later found that more than 300 children aged three to six had been enrolled in a local school prior to the explosion and that only 60 were known to be alive. Coroner Affonso Figueiredo reported, “Since whole families were killed, there was no one to report the children’s death or disappearance.” It is believed that more than 500 people in all were killed.

Source: History.com

1967, Jan 27: Astronauts die in launch pad fire

A launch pad fire during Apollo program tests at Cape Canaveral, Florida, kills astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chafee. An investigation indicated that a faulty electrical wire inside the Apollo 1 command module was the probable cause of the fire. The astronauts, the first Americans to die in a spacecraft, had been participating in a simulation of the Apollo 1 launch scheduled for the next month.

The Apollo program was initiated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) following President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 declaration of the goal of landing men on the moon and bringing them safely back to Earth by the end of the decade. The so-called “moon shot” was the largest scientific and technological undertaking in history. In December 1968, Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to travel to the moon, and on July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. walked on the lunar surface. In all, there were 17 Apollo missions and six lunar landings.

Source: History.com

The Application and Use of Digital Multimedia Evidence in Fire Investigations


James H. Shanley, Jr., PE, CFEI, CFI, MIFireE
Travelers Engineering Laboratory
James T. Noll
Travelers Engineering Laboratory

Presented at International Symposium on Fire Investigation, 2014


Digital multimedia is created in many forms and with increasing frequency with digital security systems, monitoring cameras, smart phones and other devices. Digital equipment and media obtained from these investigations should be handled in a specific way to preserve its integrity as potential evidence. In addition, Digital Multimedia may contain embedded data that can be clarified or analyzed to increase its value in a fire investigation.

The paper will review best practices with respect to handling digital equipment and multimedia in the context of a fire investigation. It will describe recovery and retrieval techniques and will aid the fire investigator in properly utilizing this growing resource of evidence.

Download the complete paper here

1969, Jan 14:  Explosion rocks USS Enterprise

An explosion aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise kills 27 people in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on this day in 1969. A rocket accidentally detonated, destroying 15 planes and injuring more than 300 people.

The Enterprise was the first-ever nuclear-powered aircraft carrier when it was launched in 1960. It has eight nuclear reactors, six more than all subsequent nuclear carriers. The massive ship is over 1,100 feet long and carries 4,600 crew members.

At 8:19 a.m. on January 14, a MK-32 Zuni rocket that was loaded on an F-4 Phantom jet overheated due to the exhaust from another vehicle. The rocket blew up, setting off a chain reaction of explosions. Fires broke out across the deck of the ship, and when jet fuel flowed into the carrier’s interior, other fires were sparked. Many of the Enterprise’s fire-protection features failed to work properly, but the crew worked heroically and tirelessly to extinguish the fire.

In all, 27 sailors lost their lives and another 314 were seriously injured. Although 15 aircraft (out of the 32 stationed on the Enterprise at the time) were destroyed by the explosions and fire, the Enterprise itself was never threatened.

The USS Enterprise was repaired over several months at Pearl Harbor and returned to action later in the year.

Source: History.com

Fire breaks out on Queen Elizabeth

On January 8 in 1972, the ship Seawise University (formerly the RMS Queen Elizabeth) sinks in Hong Kong Harbor despite a massive firefighting effort over two days.

The Queen Elizabeth, named after the wife of King George VI, was launched on September 27, 1938; at the time, it was the largest passenger steamship ever constructed. When World War II began, the Queen Elizabeth was sent to New York to protect it from German bombs. There, it was docked next to the Normandie and the Queen Mary, the other two largest passenger ships of the time.

Later, the Queen Elizabeth was called into service as a troop transport ship, carrying nearly 1 million soldiers during the war. Following the war, the ship returned to commercial service and became one of the dominant transatlantic carriers, hauling thousands of people back and forth between England and the United States. In 1968, the ship’s owner, the Cunard Steamship Company, sold the Queen Elizabeth to a company that sought to turn it into a tourist attraction and hotel in Philadelphia. However, the aging ship was deemed a fire hazard and two years later it was sold to Hong Kong businessman C.Y. Tung, who wanted to use the ship as a floating college. It was renamed Seawise University and sent to Hong Kong Harbor for refitting.

On January 8, fire broke out on the ship and virtually the entire Hong Kong firefighting force turned out to try to save it. Despite heroic efforts over two days, the old ship turned on its side and sank to the bottom of the harbor. Fortunately, no one was killed. Two years later, the wreck served as the backdrop for a key scene in The Man With the Golden Gun, a 1974 film starring Roger Moore as James Bond.

Source: History.com

On-Scene Characterization of Flammable Liquid Vapors


J.D. DeHaan, Ph.D Fire-Ex Forensics Inc. USA
David A. Matthew, M.A. International Association of Fire Chiefs, USA
Gareth S. Dobson. Ph.D. Smiths Detection Inc. USA

Presented at International Symposium on Fire Investigation, 2014

There has not been a significant advancement in on-scene forensic fire debris analysis in over a decade. The ability to identify an accelerant at the fire scene would provide the fire investigator useful data, increasing efficiency and effectiveness. This research project was intended to establish if the identification of ignitable liquids can be achieved at the fire scene. Three testing sites in Utah, Texas and California provided data that the hand portable Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry (GC/MS) with Solid Phase Microextraction (SPME) fiber sampling technique is able to confirm the identity of ignitable liquid vapors at the fire scene consistent with fire debris analysis techniques. Post flashover testing was conducted at three sites in California and one in Utah providing replicable data confirming ignitable liquid vapor identification at low part per billion (ppb) and part per million (ppm) concentrations in real-world fires. The evidentiary samples taken at the testing sites in California were sent to a certified lab to confirm the results from the field data. The GUARDION ® GC/MS produced by Smiths Detection was used for field testing. A limiting factor in the field application of GC/MS was determined when the data produced had to be analyzed by a GC/MS specialist to confirm the identification of the ignitable liquid, similar to current laboratory techniques. It is recommended that a fire debris analysis method be developed to increase the field application of GC/MS.

Download the complete paper here


Fire Investigator Qualifications Standard Approved for OSAC Registry

NAFI has endorsed National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 921 Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations since the first edition was released in 1992. NFPA 921 has been a key source of technical information concerning the investigation of Fires and Explosions.  NAFI has also utilized and supported NFPA 1033 Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigators as this document provides guidance concerning the knowledge and competencies that a Fire and Explosion Investigator must have to effectively complete and investigation. Having these two documents selected and approved to be included in the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) for Forensic Science registry which serves as a trusted repository of high-quality, science-based standards and guidelines for forensic practice is testimony that these documents are truly authoritative. Both of these documents have been key elements in the development and continuation of the NAFI Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator (CFEI) and Certified Vehicle Fire and Explosion Investigator (CVFI) programs. – Ron Hopkins, President, NAFI

The Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) for Forensic Science has approved the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard for Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigator for inclusion on the OSAC Registry, which serves as a trusted repository of high-quality, science-based standards and guidelines for forensic practice. This is the first personnel qualification standard and the second NFPA document to be included on the OSAC Registry.

OSAC, which is administered by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), is working to strengthen forensic science by facilitating the development of discipline-specific, science-based standards and guidelines for a broad array of forensic disciplines. To be posted to the OSAC Registry, standards and guidelines must have been developed using a consensus-based process and must pass a review of technical merit by forensic practitioners, academic researchers, statisticians and measurement scientists. Continue Reading…

Source: NIST.gov