The paper discusses thermal injuries and their effect on body tissues as well as the work of a death investigator. It explores different aspects that allow death investigators and pathologists to avoid various problems with the interpretation of the causes of a victim’s death. The reason for this is that thermal injuries may involve different factors that can mislead the analysis and interpretation of a fire scene and a victim’s body leading to inadequate explanation of the causes of death. The analysis performed in this paper includes the classification of burns and their impact on the body tissue, the review of the circumstances associated with thermal injuries, and the procedures required for scene and body investigation. Therefore, this work allows pathologists and death investigators to enhance their knowledge of thermal injury analysis and the process of identification of the actual causes of a victim’s death.

The work of criminologists and pathologists significantly depends on their knowledge about the issues related to the physical, chemical and biological correlation between different events and their aftermath. As a consequence, it is expected that an experienced professional successfully engages in the synthesis of knowledge as well as body and crime scene analysis. In case these procedures are efficient, they lead to relevant conclusions about the crime scene and the causes of death and allow finding the criminal or critical evidence approving or disproving one’s guilt. One of the issues that directly relates to the described processes is thermal injuries, which range from minor burns to the ones that leave burnt particles.

This paper classifies thermal injuries and describes the actions of a death investigator present at the scene. It discusses body and crime scene check, the time required for burning various types of tissue, the impact of accelerants and others. The paper suggests that the analysis of burnt body and fire scene is a challenging task for an investigator because it requires knowledge of various procedures, types of burns, their causes and the factors behind fire incidents. This review is useful for anyone who is involved in crime scene and body investigation as it allows considering different aspects of thermal injuries and related issues, which improves the outcomes of the investigators’ actions.

Classification of Burns and Effect on Body Tissue

It is important to define the term ‘thermal injury’ and classify the types of thermal injuries in order to avoid confusion and misinterpretation in its further analysis. Thus, a thermal injury or a thermal burn is a damage of body tissue caused by a heated agent or material, which has body injuring chemical, biological and physical characteristics. As a consequence, experts classify thermal injuries depending on the severity of tissue destruction dividing them into four categories. The first-degree burns (Figure 1) inflict minor skin damage, which has the signs of mild inflammation.

They include red discoloration, increased local skin temperature, swelling of the injured area because of edema and pain caused by skin stretching and stimulation of nerve endings (Spitz & Spitz, 2006). As the circulation of the blood ceases after death, “blood from congested area settles by gravity into dependent areas” (Spitz & Spitz, 2006, p. 747). Meanwhile, the second-degree burns (Figure 2) are deeper, have blisters and lead to the destruction of not only epidermis but also dermis.

It should be noted that some experts subdivide these burns into categories of partial and full thickness where the first group of burns does not injure the deepest layer of skin unlike the second one (“Burn classification,” n. d.). Scholars often refer to third-degree burns (Figure 3) as “full thickness burns” because they damage all layers of skin (Spitz & Spitz, 2006, p. 747).

Also, this type of burns may presuppose scarring and skin grafting. Lastly, fourth-degree burns or charring are characterized by “complete destruction of skin and underlying tissues, often including bone” (Spitz & Spitz, 2006, p. 747). At the same time, one may classify the burns according to the mechanism by which heat affects the body. Consequently, one can identify such injuries as flashes, flames, scalds, and contacts. Flashes are caused by the exposure to natural gasses and flammable liquids within an extremely limited period of time (“Burn classification,” n. d.). In this situation, clothes may serve as protection unless they ignite. Next, if the flash lasts for a long time, it can be classified as a flame. Typically, the causes of flame are different and may include automobile accidents, ignited home appliances, improper use of flammable agents and others. In contrast, scalds are burns caused by hot liquids such as water, oil, or other substance when doing chores and alike. Meanwhile, some experts state that circumferential burns may serve as an indicator of the non-accidental character of trauma (“Burn classification,” n. d.). Contact is another type of burns; it occurs when hot substances such as plastic, glass or metal come into contact with the skin. The provided data allow broadening the pattern of analysis and interpretation of a burnt body and a fire scene. In addition, analyzing the burns, the investigator should consider two factors, which are the duration or time of exposure to heat and the intensity or temperature (Figure 4). The correlation between these aspects is direct and demonstrates that both high temperature and considerable time of exposure add to the severity of tissue damage.

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It is important to indicate that the temperature of the fire may be different and depends on the burning substances which are used. In this sense, house fires drastically differ from chemical fires as “some chemical fires rapidly reach several thousand degrees” (Spitz & Spitz, 2006, p. 747) because of the peculiarities of burning agents. Therefore, despite house fires typically have a high temperature of 900-1200 degrees Fahrenheit and almost never exceed 1300 degrees, it is unlikely for a human body to burn completely (Spitz & Spitz, 2006). As a consequence, a positive factor in thermal death investigations is that it is impossible to dispose a victim by means of igniting the building. In this respect, in order to demonstrate the correlation between temperature and human body, one may compare the gravity of domestic thermal injuries with that of a cremation chamber. Thus, “cremation in a gas-fired chamber requires 1-1/2 to 2 hours at 1600–1800 degrees Fahrenheit to reduce an average built adult body to ashes” (Spitz & Spitz, 2006, p. 747). At the same time, it is significant to note that bones would require pulverization as they do not turn to bone dust because of intense exposure to fire (Spitz & Spitz, 2006). Also, there are factors that lead to a significant reduction of time required for burning someone’s body completely. Such factors may include diseases, old age, and early age. As stated by Spitz and Spitz (2006), “the body of a newborn child can be incinerated in an ordinary stove in less than two hours” (p. 749). Therefore, one should be aware of the fact that elderly people and children are in a particular danger of fire exposure due to age, immaturity and other factors. All of the identified issues should be considered when performing the analysis of the scene and the body.

The Procedures of a Death Investigator

Present at the Scene Involving Thermal Injuries

The process of investigation of the scene and dead body with thermal injuries is challenging for investigators because there are various factors that can mislead the analysis. Thus, after the arrival at the scene, an investigator should contact the team of the fire fighters that responded to the emergency and interview them. This action is important because it allows identifying the circumstances that led to the scene and body damage. A crucial factor of this procedure is that “the answer should be similar to what was reported to dispatch upon arriving on scene” (Lunn, 2008). The whole process of the interview should help the investigator evaluate the structure damage and the accompanied factors such as the duration of the fire, the presence of smoke, and others. Furthermore, it is critical to do a scene walk-through together with the fire investigator in order to determine the potentially suspicious factors that may indicate that arson was committed. For example, when performing a scene walk-through, one may find suspicious substances, materials or objects that do not belong to the burnt place. What is more, if there is blood found at the scene, it requires thorough documentation because of the possibility of being the indicator of death that preceded burning. Thus, experts state that “often, blood located on the body is an indicator of a non-fire-related trauma” (International Association of Arson Investigators, 2014, p. 339). In addition, the investigator should document the position of the body or bodies and make corresponding photographs. This procedure assists in identifying the causes of ignition and death such as the release of a toxic gas because of burning of material, the damage of ventilation or home appliances and others (Lunn, 2008). Typically, dead bodies affected by heat take a specific position, which is the result of dehydration of muscle tissue. This position is referred to as pugilistic attitude (Figure 5) and resembles a basic boxing stance because of muscle constriction that “can even fracture bones in the arms or legs” (International Association of Arson Investigators, 2014, p. 339).

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In relation to this fact, a typical mistake of the beginning investigators is the suspicion that the victim was “as if warding off blows to the chest and head” (International Association of Arson Investigators, 2014, p. 339). Therefore, such position is typical for a human body affected by the intense fire and should not be considered a suspicious factor. Moreover, there is a need for taking additional photographs with a clean white sheet or new commercially made evidence “with the benefit of the white background for contrast” (Lunn, 2008). Finally, if the investigator finds any evidence pointing to a suspicious death, they should consult a fire investigator to have an additional expert opinion. Moreover, if there are any cans with accelerants found at the scene, they should be taken to the laboratory along with the clothes of a victim for a volatile test. Accelerants are fuels that are used either to start a fire or to increase its intensity because of their “low activation energy” and “undergo highly exothermic reactions” (Siegel & Mirakovits, 2006, p. 483). Some accelerants, namely gasoline and paint thinners, are consumer products and therefore can be easily used by the arsonists. Experts state that accelerants can greatly increase the intensity of a fire because they “give off much heat” (Siegel & Mirakovits, 2006, p. 488). Consequently, such substances are used to inflict serious thermal injuries on a person or, in some cases, burn the body deliberately. Meanwhile, accelerants leave trails or burnt shapes of a different color due to their extreme intensity (Figure 6), which is why an investigator can visually detect them.

At the same time, the usage of highly flammable substances should be approved by chemists in order to assure their relation to the case. After the investigator finishes analyzing the site and gathering the evidence, they should proceed to body analysis at the laboratory.

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Laboratory Actions of a Death Investigator When Analyzing a Burnt Body

It is important to take the necessary actions that help an investigator gather the information about the burnt body and discover the causes of person’s death. First, there is a need for obtaining full-body radiograms because they allow finding injuries done by different substances or materials that caused death. For instance, radiogram may reveal the presence of knife or glass cuts, bullet traces, broken bones, dental and skull traumas, mechanically injured organs and others. In such case, it becomes evident that the fire was not the cause of the victim’s death, but “it could be that the arsonist was trying to cover up a crime” (Lunn, 2008). What is more, radiogram is important in case there is no other possibility for the identification of a victim because dental comparison and implanted medical equipment can assist with it (Lunn, 2008). Another factor associated with burns is the presence of carbon monoxide in the blood of a victim, which is why there is a need for blood analysis. If the investigator reveals that there is a high level of this gas in a blood sample of a victim, it becomes clear that the death was caused by carbon monoxide inhalation. Therefore, the investigator has to demonstrate procedural knowledge and competence in order to analyze burnt body and fire scene properly and identify the causes of person’s death.


Pathologist and body investigators should have a profound knowledge of procedures and factors associated with thermal injury analysis. The reason for it is that different intensity of the heat as well as the time of exposure of a body to fire may lead to various outcomes. Thus, thermal injuries may range from minor burns to deep burns affecting muscles and bones. Additionally, as an active agent, fire affects the objects and substances present at the scene, which restrains the process of analysis. Similarly, body investigators need to apply knowledge of the principles of analysis of the scene and the body to arrive at relevant conclusions as for the causes of death. This knowledge enhances the quality of the analytical procedure and allows the investigator to avoid omitting critical evidence that increases the speed of identification of causes of death and related factors.

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