Tools for Probing Fatal Fires to Be Tested in Washington County

Article excerpt

Working as an arson investigator for the Pennsylvania State Police years ago, Robert Ryhal would just put human bones found at the scene into a bag or box and cart them away.

Even today, investigators sometimes use backhoes to dig up the ground where human remains are believed to be resting, said Dennis C. Dirkmaat, chairman of the Department of Applied Forensic Sciences and director of the master's of Forensic and Physical Anthropology Program at Mercyhurst College in Erie.

"We're trying to demonstrate that archaeological methods of excavation can be applied to a fatal fire scene," Dirkmaat said. "We hope to validate those techniques as protocols for all investigations."

Dirkmaat and a team of Mercyhurst researchers will attempt to move closer to that goal beginning Tuesday when they set fire to an abandoned house in McDonald, Washington County.

Researchers plan to place the bodies of dead pigs, culled by farmers from their populations, and objects such as knives and spent bullet cartridges inside the structure before setting it ablaze.

Scientists will use tools such as saws to put marks onto the pigs' bones before setting the flames.

"We want to look at how tool marks are altered by fire," said Steven A. Symes, associate professor of applied forensic sciences and anthropology at Mercyhurst.

Dirkmaat and Symes are two of fewer than 60 board-certified forensic anthropologists in North America, according to school spokeswoman, Debbie Morton.

Rather than the crude and evidence-disturbing use of a backhoe, for example, Dirkmaat said he and his team will use tools such as anthropological trowels and brushes at the McDonald site to examine a scene. …