Expert: Weeks, months of painstaking process to identify remains in car fire

Local News

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)–Investigators spent hours sifting through what was left inside and outside the burned-out vehicle towed from the scene late Tuesday in Black Rock.

It’s a painstaking process that must be performed delicately.

And oftentimes, investigators only get one chance.

“It’s going to take some time for the medical exmainer’s office to identify who may or may not be inside that vehicle,” said Buffalo Police Capt. Jeffrey Rinaldo.

But even before that, other investigators must perform their own work.

It’s the job of forensic anthropologists to not only piece together what’s left of remains at the scene of an emergency, like a house or car fire, but to determine what happened right before, and most times, how someone died.

“In a fire, everything is burned and the coloration is all very similar,” said Dr. Dennis Dirkmaat, Chair, applied forenic sciences department, Mercyhurst University. “So it’s a difficult task to have to sift and sort and try to find the remains.”

That was the case in May, when a fire tore through this Elmwood Avenue home, killing 55-year-old Curtis Brown. Dirkmaat was called to the scene.

“So we went room by room, used heavy equipment to scrape a few inches,” he said. “They would dump the material and then we would see what was there.”

It’s the same approach to a car fire, except on a smaller, and generally more intense scale.

“In a car fire, you get all those forces in a confined area, so sometimes the intensity of the fire is even more so than in a structure, a wooden structure,” he said.

And although what’s left behind after the fire is out may not seem like enough, it will be.

“The common knowledge is that you can burn bones to ash. And that is not the case,” Dr. Dirkmaat said. “The whole bodies are in there. The bones are all in there.”

Dr. Dirkmaat is also hopeful investigators are able to determine whether anything happened to whomever was in the vehicle, before the fire.

“Trauma analysis is a key aspect in these fatal fires in cars,” he said. “The recovery will have a big impact on what you’re able to get out of this.”

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