Accident or arson? Staged burnings help investigators dig out clues when examining charred hulls
The approximately 1,200 members of the International Association of Marine Investigators make their living by determining why a boat has sunk, burned, exploded or disappeared.
To certified marine investigators such as 30-year veteran Daniel K. Rutherford, there are four classifications for a vessel fire: natural, incendiary, accidental and undetermined. Rutherford, president of Ocean Marine Specialties in West Cape May, N.J., and a founding member of the IAMI, investigates about 150 marine claims a year. “Most are accidental, many from electrical causes,” he says. “But with this economy there has been an uptick in suspicious fires.”
The parties in an investigation are varied — law enforcement, private and public fire investigators, surveying and insurance — so one of the association’s goals is to create a uniform method of examining any of the cases. To that end, on April 19 and 20, Rutherford and a team of IAMI members organized a marine fire investigation course in Sayreville, N.J., the first since one held in 2005 in Wells, Maine.
Organizers had Hurricane Irene to thank for much of the research material. One of Rutherford’s major clients is BoatUS. After the insurer investigated the damage caused last August by the worst storm to hit the Northeast in decades, it was left with many boats that were too damaged to salvage. At Rutherford’s request, several were donated for course material. “Normally we wouldn’t have that many at once,” he says. BoatUS donated six boats, from a 20-foot center console to a 42-foot sailboat. Another client, Bill Lockwood at Lockwood Boat Works in South Amboy, N.J., donated four derelict boats that were taking up space at his yard.
About 80 members from around the country attended, as well as some from Canada, the Caribbean and Europe. Before they arrived, team leaders burned 10 boats under various scenarios — radiant heat damage, an electrical wiring harness fire, an exhaust fire. A Dufour 27 was the platform for a simulated propane explosion. “That was the most fun of all,” Rutherford says.
Each of the staged burns was recorded on infrared and HD video. Surveillance cameras in the boats tracked the spread of the flames. “The infrared camera illustrates the fire propagation and spread inside a cabin, based on temperatures,” says private investigator Todd Schwede of Todd and Associates in San Diego, who installed the cameras. “The other cameras were strategically placed, depending on the fire, to observe the initiation area, how a cabin fire or engine room fire spreads from its origin and subsequently propagates, based on the fuel load, wind direction and other factors.
“It is rare to have the opportunity to observe a fire from beginning to end, observe the color of smoke, watch the venting patterns and how fire moves through the enclosed spaces of a boat,” adds Schwede, whose office typically averages between 320 and 360 claims a year.
The goal of the exercise was to teach investigators a uniform, team-oriented approach to fire investigation, Rutherford says. “One thing we all noticed was how quickly the fires went from small to out of control — it was literally just a couple of minutes,” he says.
In a simulated engine fire, the instructors watched for several minutes while the enclosed engine room smoldered. Then, as might happen in a real-life situation, the hatch was opened to douse the space with a fire extinguisher. “As soon as we opened the hatch, the fire quickly grew out of control,” Rutherford says.
Instructors divided the class into 10 teams, each with representation from law enforcement, private and public fire investigation, surveying and insurance. Each team was tasked with completing an origin-and-cause investigation. Scenarios were provided and the instructors acted as witnesses for “interviews.”
The participants were instructed by Arthur Murphy, a certified private marine investigator with Maze Consultants and Investigations in Georgetown, Mass., who asked them to explain what makes marine fire investigations more challenging than house, auto or commercial property probes. A typical boat has many flammable liquids aboard — paints, paint thinners, teak oil, acetone, fuel and the multiple chemicals that go into fiberglass manufacturing. They make for a combustible platform.
“Most fire cause-and-origin investigators have not been exposed to marine fires on a regular basis, and their background is typically based in vehicles or structures and buildings,” Schwede says. “As their core training typically does not include boat fires, the opportunity to watch the movement of smoke in the propagation of a fire throughout the hidden passages of a boat was an eye-opener to many in attendance.”
On the final morning, the teams were provided with thumb drives and report templates. When they were finished, they presented their findings, along with the evidence and their investigation process, to the class. Once done, the videos of the staged burns were shown. “Most teams did very well,” Rutherford says. “Some teams hit it right on the mark. Some were too focused on arson scenarios, and since they know that each boat was actually intentionally set that seemed to affect their decision-making process.”
Only one team missed the mark in determining the origin and cause. In an appropriate closing, the event wrapped up with the burn of an old donated Chris-Craft.
Rutherford noted that the burns were very controlled and suppressed at a designated time and in a manner to leave as much evidence as possible. In the real world, firefighters probably would blast a boat with water to rapidly extinguish a fire. A high-pressure water assault can damage or destroy evidence. “In other cases, investigators will come across a vessel that burned down to the gravel,” Rutherford says. “And we teach them not to be afraid to declare a cause as ‘undetermined’ if it can’t be proven by science. They can theorize as to the cause, but can’t determine the reason unequivocally.”
Investigators say there is a growing trend in which companies writing marine insurance policies have turned to staff adjusters to handle claims rather than hire investigators. “As the general public has been allowed to submit applications online, with no signatures, photographs or survey reports, insurance fraud has never been easier,” Schwede says.
This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue.