Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Speed kills

Yet another 0200 call out, yet another drive across three communities to yet another burned out structure. Investigations was beginning to grind me down, I was tired of being tired.

I met with the Incident Commander, who showed me what they had done, what they had found and what they thought they needed to do. He pointed to the three units which were well involved when they arrived and to where they had forced entry. Then, he pointed to where they forced entry again and to where they finally stopped the fire.

I don't know how many of you have been to a fire at a mini-storage facility, but they present several operational challenges which can take a lot of personnel and time to overcome. Access, fire loading and construction features are three of the biggies. The boyos from Battalion Three did a decent job with this one, though it took two alarms to get it done.

My job was to determine what caused the fire and, if a crime was involved, who was responsible for it.

Lighting from the heavy rescue and one of the truck companies revealed two driveways littered with the remains of peoples belongings. Smoke still drifted out of several units, the crews were waiting for my permission before completing the overhaul.The crews did not seem very happy, my presence meant that they would be working in the cold early morning hours even longer.

I started by walking the complex outside the fire area, looking for anything out of place. The area was photographed as were the interiors of units which were entered but not burned. I worked my way toward the initial three units, documenting what I found with photos, notes and crude sketches.

I told the crews which units they could overhaul as each unit was eliminated as the unit of origin.. Finally, I got the area of origin narrowed down to three units, then two and finally one.

I entered the unit of origin and begin to narrow it down to where in the unit the fire started and what event caused the fire. The damage to this unit was extensive, burn patterns told me that the fire had burned for a long time and had flashed over at some time in the fire sequence.

I had been in the unit of origin for quite a while and was standing in the far left corner of the unit. I was looking at some unusual burn patterns when I noticed an unusual mass of burned material propped up in the corner. The shape of it and several other features kind of reminded me of a department store mannequin.

This mannequin had no hands and the face was featureless, not unlike the ones seen in the men's department at Sears. It was severely burned, the charring causing it to blend in with the blackened wall of the storage unit.

As I wondered what a mannequin was doing in this storage unit, I subconsciously picked up the distinctive  shape of an exposed human adams apple and realized that this mannequin was a severely burned human being. I also noticed that I was standing on what should have been it's feet. The thought process described in this paragraph took no more than a fraction of a second. An indescribable eerie, weird feeling overcame me and I bailed out of the unit.. I was in such a hurry to leave, I hit my head on the propped up roll up door as I left. Good thing I was wearing my helmet.

The deputy who was standing outside when this happened still busts my chops about it when he sees me. I can't wait for that prick to retire. We both re-entered the unit and made sure it was a body. Now that I knew what I was looking at , it was easy to pick up the charred human features.

Now, my cause and origin case became a potential homicide scene with all of the personnel and documentation that comes with it. I won't bore you with the details, I will tell you it took us over eight hours to process the scene and dig out the unit.

We learned that our victim was a homeless man who had once owned a business in a neighboring town. He had become addicted to meth and used a pipe to smoke it.

We learned that it was a common practice for homeless people to be locked into storage units at night and then be let out in the morning by friends. They do this because management puts "landlord locks" on all unlocked units each night to prevent homeless people from sleeping in the unlocked units. Homeless people who can afford a small unit and want to sleep in them can't risk being locked in by the management so they have their friends put a lock on the door at night and unlock it in the morning. I guess that you would soon learn which friends you could trust.

We learned that the victim likely accidentally started the fire toward the front of the unit, then moved to the back of the unit when he couldn't get out. We found the remains of a pipe and a torch as well as a lighter near the roll-up door.

I learned that autopsies are an assembly line process and that our victim was alive as he burned.

I also learned that you can never assume someone isn't "in there", no matter where "in there" is.

The though of that poor bastard burning alive in the storage unit still creeps me out, even if he was a meth-head.

Thanks for reading,



  1. What a fascinating job you have, (not to be disrespectful of the dead man) to reconstruct the fire and find who/what caused it! Is this a special training area in your department or is it your"hands on" that gave this job to you? Just curious and fascinated at the same time!

  2. Dear Schmoe,
    My God I would have run too. It's the surprise that tips it over in the panic part of the brain.

    I've often wondered about storage units and the homeless. Thank you also for confirming a couple of guesses in other areas. I am learning a lot.

    Sincerely yours,

  3. Gia - Our state is pretty proactive when it comes to arson training - they offer a lot of classes on the subject. I had most of them when I went into the investigation unit, the district allowed for me to attend the rest on their dime. OJT was great, I worked with some guys that had been doing it for a long time.

    Investigations is fascinating and I worked with some great folks over at the Sheriff's Office. That being said, I was in the unit only for a few years, I did not adapt well to supervising an Engine Company and being an investigator at the same time. We were understaffed at the time and splitting time between the two functions was causing problems at work and at home.

    Ann - Ya know, maybe the term "run" is a little harsh. We in the fire service like to think of it more like "Moving quickly to another location so that we can gain a safer position from which we can assess the situation". Yeah, that's it.

    I might also add that I was "Moving quickly to another location so that we can gain a safer position from which I could assess the situation" fast enough, that had I not been wearing my helmet, I would have probably knocked myself out.

    We're not to fond of the term "panic" either, especially as it applies to us. It's better described as "an instantaneous risk assessment followed by a rapid repositioning to a safer environment" It's the fire service version of politically correct speaking.

    I thank both of you for reading my thoughts and for taking the time to comment.


  4. EWWWWWW, great story and totally creepy. I really enjoyed reading that! thank you!!

  5. Dear Captain Schmoe,
    I stand corrected.

    Should I have had my feet into any boot similar to your own, I would also have moved quickly to another location so that I could gain a safer position in order to assess the situation. My instantaneous risk assessment might have been slower in onset than yours, but I can guarantee that my rapid repositioning to a safer assessment environment would still have gotten me out first.

    That of course, is because you display more selfless behavior. Undoubtedly you would allow me to get the hell out of your way while I was giving a high-frequency auditory warning at the full capacity of my respiratory organs.

    Just when you felt you had nothing to be grateful for about that day,
    Ann T.

  6. dang!
    Note to self: keep the crack supplies outdoors.