How Can You Tell What Caused a Limousine to Catch Fire?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 6 2013 5:34 PM

Hell on Wheels

How do you determine what caused a vehicle fire?

Firefighters and a car blaze.
Firefighters and a car blaze.

Photo by iStockphoto/Thinkstock

A white stretch limousine carrying nine women to a bachelorette party burst into flames Saturday night, killing the bride and four other passengers.* Despite witness accounts of the accident on the San Mateo Bridge in the San Francisco Bay Area, officials are still unsure how the deadly limousine fire started. How do investigators determine what caused a fire in a vehicle?

Jennifer Lai Jennifer Lai

Jennifer Lai is an associate editor at Slate.

Through examination and elimination. Investigators start by examining the vehicle as it stands after the fire. Three main zones are examined: the engine compartment, the passenger compartment, and the trunk. Each area is divided into sections; damage is compared from section to section in each of the zones.

In the engine compartment, investigators look for localized damage and spills from different fluids (such as brake fluid or transmission fluid) in each section to determine where the fire originated. In the passenger compartment, five sections are examined closely for clues: the front, back, left, right, and console. (Nowadays, drivers carry so many items in the console that it receives its own separate investigation.) In extended vehicles, like limousines, several additional sections exist within each zone.

Advertisement

Burn marks are key to this process. For example, V-shaped patterns are associated with initial flames—a telltale sign of where the fire began. By examining what was burned and what wasn’t, in addition to specific burn patterns, investigators can gather more information about what happened. After the vehicle is towed from the scene of the fire, the patterns on the ground can provide additional clues.

If an investigator observes a deeper burn on one of the seats in the vehicle, part of the seat will be cut out and taken in for testing for ignitable fluids. Investigators also note if there are any strange odors that could indicate the presence of ignitable fluid.

The vehicle’s history also can provide clues to the cause of the fire. If the car’s model was recalled in the past, investigators will take note. Details such as the presence of customer-installed features are also important—modifications may have been installed incorrectly and become potential sources of ignition.

Investigators may also use supplemental evidence, such as accounts from surviving witnesses, if there are any. Details like an odd smell, smoke, or even prior malfunctions with the electrical system are highly telling. Information from passersby, as well as any photos or videos from surveillance cameras, are helpful in reconstructing a timeline of the incident.

Explainer thanks Capt. Anthony Czepik of the Fire Investigation Bureau of the City of Baltimore and Dr. John D. De Haan, co-author of Kirk’s Fire Investigation.

Correction, May 7, 2013: This article originally stated that the bride was a bride-to-be. She had already gotten married. (Return.)

TODAY IN SLATE

Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

The Jarring Experience of Watching White Americans Speak Frankly About Race

How Facebook’s New Feature Could Come in Handy During a Disaster

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

View From Chicago

You Should Be Able to Sell Your Kidney

Or at least trade it for something.

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Terrorism, Immigration, and Ebola Are Combining Into a Supercluster of Anxiety

The Legal Loophole That Allows Microsoft to Seize Assets and Shut Down Companies

  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Oct. 19 2014 1:05 PM Dawn Patrol Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s critically important 5 a.m. wake-up call on voting rights.
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 19 2014 11:40 AM Pot-Infused Halloween Candy Is a Worry in Colorado
  Life
Outward
Oct. 17 2014 5:26 PM Judge Begrudgingly Strikes Down Wyoming’s Gay Marriage Ban
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 17 2014 4:23 PM A Former FBI Agent On Why It’s So Hard to Prosecute Gamergate Trolls
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Oct. 17 2014 1:33 PM What Happened at Slate This Week?  Senior editor David Haglund shares what intrigued him at the magazine. 
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 19 2014 4:33 PM Building Family Relationships in and out of Juvenile Detention Centers
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 17 2014 6:05 PM There Is No Better Use For Drones Than Star Wars Reenactments
  Health & Science
Space: The Next Generation
Oct. 19 2014 11:45 PM An All-Female Mission to Mars As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 16 2014 2:03 PM Oh What a Relief It Is How the rise of the bullpen has changed baseball.