The Role of Forensic Anthropologists at the Fatal Fire Recovery A Retrospective Study of Cases from 1983–2020

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Andrea Ost
Diana Messer
Dennis Dirkmaat


A retrospective review of 1,760 forensic cases processed by Mercyhurst University personnel between 1983 and 2020
was performed for medicolegal investigations of fatal fires. This research examines trends in the role of forensic anthropology and forensic archaeology at fatal fire scenes. A total of 218 forensic archaeological searches and/or recoveries were conducted over the 38-year period. Of these, 36 were categorized as fire cases for which the Mercyhurst Forensic Scene Recovery Team (M-FSRT) processed the scene, even in the event that a body was not found. Data were collected from these cases on location, fire type, season of fire recovery, and manner of fire (accidental or intentional). Fire searches/recoveries spanned four U.S. states and all seasons, with the greatest number of cases occurring in the fall (36%) and an equal number of cases involving fires outdoors and within structures. The majority of fire scene recoveries were related to events that were accidental, such as the wrecks of automobiles, airplanes, and trains, as opposed to intentional. From 1983 to 2009, 15% of all searches/recoveries involved fire, while in the past 10 years (2010–2020), that percentage has increased to 17.4%. Over half of the total fire recovery cases were conducted between 2015 and 2020. Considering the increasing involvement of forensic anthropologists in fatal fire recoveries and the diversity of fatal fire scenes, it is imperative that best practices be accessible to assist forensic anthropologists in approaching scenes of this nature. This research provides recommendations toward scene processing and the incorporation of forensic archaeological methods at the fire scene.

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