“Burnt Beyond Recognition”

When a body is found after a fire has been extinguished, the extent of the damage to the individual can make positively identifying them difficult. The severity of the fire and the location of the body in proximity to its origin determines just how difficult. For example, someone found in a remote part of the house may have died from smoke inhalation with little or no thermal injuries and still be identifiable at a glance. At the other end of the spectrum, someone close to the origin of the fire may be burnt beyond recognition.

Identifying a body typically follows the same process. Viewing someone is the quickest and easiest method, but in the case of someone burnt beyond recognition other means must be used. Fingerprints are the next avenue provided the fingertips weren’t too damaged by the fire. Extremities are often the first parts of the body to be “cremated” if the fire burns hot enough and long enough.

If fingerprinting isn’t possible, then the remains can be x-rayed while at the morgue. Comparison of dental x-rays and charting is the most efficient considering most people have had dental work fairly recently. The success of using old fractures, surgical fixtures, and bone characteristics found in body x-rays ultimately depends on the extent of fire damage and the existence of antemortem x-rays to compare them with.

DNA comparison is typically only used when the previous approaches are insufficient. The process relies on the availability and successful extraction of genetic material to begin with. There must also be a sufficient number of living, immediate blood relatives to compare with. While this method is very precise, the process of collecting specimens, submitting specimens to a DNA lab, and awaiting the results of the analysis extends the amount of time that family and friends must wait for a positive identification.

Many times fire personnel and family members may have little doubt as to the identity of the person who died. However, the responsibility of confirming identity ultimately falls on the shoulders of the coroner or medical examiner because they are the ones who are legally accountable for accurately certifying a death.


2 Responses to ““Burnt Beyond Recognition””

  1. January 29, 2005 at 11:21 am

    Just wondering how long, typically, it takes to get back DNA test results. I’m constantly amazed at the “time differences” between Hollywood and real life. Pre-trial stuff takes months and months, not minutes. Test results come back in weeks or months instead of tv’s hours.

    But, it does seem like there are times when DNA results are needed now. Is that even possible?

    I always smile at the “keep him on the line a few minutes longer so we can get the trace.” I guess tv doesn’t want bad guys to know that traces are done in seconds.

    Great website, by the way.


  2. 2 A Douglas
    January 30, 2005 at 12:31 pm

    I worked one case in particular that took several months. It takes quite a bit of effort to extract DNA from someone’s nearly cremated remains. It can take even more effort to locate immediate family members and obtain blood samples or buccal swabs, which themselves must be submitted and analyzed. Unless the department investigating the death is a “full-service” department like on television (most are not), the analysis itself is out-sourced to a state crime lab or a university. The fastest I have ever seen a DNA “turnaround” was still several weeks, and I believe a favor was called in on that one. Priority results for one agency may not necessarily be a priority for another agency.

    I generally give TV the benefit of the doubt. After all, they only have one hour to work with. Still, I can’t help but laugh when the characters go to the morgue withing hours of the autopsy and the pathologist reports, “Test results indicated a large amount of Rohypnol in the bloodstream” of the deceased. Our toxicological testing typically takes anywhere from two to three months, and we do our own testing.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment and the kind words.

    A Douglas

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