Death by Fire: Asphyxiation Most Common Cause

The Station fire at 40 seconds. Photo Credit: Daniel R. Davidson
The Station fire at 40 seconds. Photo Credit: Daniel R. Davidson

The Station nightclub fire occurred beginning at 11:07 PM EST, on Thursday, February 20, 2003, at The Station, a nightclub located in West Warwick, Rhode Island, United States; it is considered to be the fourth deadliest nightclub fire in United States history, killing 100 people, four of whom died at local hospitals. The fire was caused when pyrotechnic sparks used in the band’s show ignited flammable sound insulation foam in the walls and ceilings around the stage, creating a flash fire that engulfed the club in 5.5 minutes. 230 other people were injured and another 132 escaped uninjured.

Do you have nightmares about dying in a fire? Do you ever wonder what dying by fire might be like? In most cases, a victim who has died by fire actually has died from asphyxiation, or suffocation from inhaling smoke and carbon monoxide (CO). Many times, asphyxiation occurs before the fire ever reaches the victim.

Once a body is discovered in a burned area such as a wooded area or in a home, the medical examiner tests the victim’s blood and tissues for CO. Normal CO levels are less than five percent, but can be slightly higher in smokers. The CO level in asphyxiated victims ranges from 45 to 90 percent.

Finding a high level of CO in a victim’s blood or tissues usually means the person died from smoke and CO inhalation; however, a low level implies that the victim died before or at the time the fire started. Even this evaluation might be modified by other factors. An older person with severe coronary artery disease, for instance, will die from a lower level of CO than a younger healthier person.

Learning about the level of CO in a victim’s blood or tissues, however, often can speak volumes about how the victim died. Carbon monoxide intoxication, or excessive Co in the bloodstream may prevent victims from escaping before the fire reaches them. As the CO level increases to 20 percent, dizziness and confusion occur. At 35 percent, a loss of coordination and weakness ensues and disorientation increases. At levels of 50 percent or more, the victim experiences of loss of consciousness and, eventually, death.

Therefore, many victims who die in fires often are unconscious or dead before the fire reaches the body. But, in cases where the CO level is low and where the mouth, throat, lungs and airways don’t contain soot, investigators may suspect foul play. In this case, the victim may have died well before the fire started, as the victim could not inhale smoke and CO produced by the fire.

Finally, not all bodies burn completely during a fire, as most house fires do not reach the temperature required to burn a body. Cremation alone requires a constant temperature of 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit or 815 Celcuis or more for two or more hours to reduce a body to cremain, or bone fragments. Many house fires may reach temperatures of 500 to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (260 to 1,100 Celsius), but a house fire may burn quickly or the fire may be extinquished well before two hours have passed.

Therefore, one more way to tell if a body has experienced CO intoxication is by skin coloring. When CO is inhaled, it combines iwith the hemoglobin in red blood cells to produce carboxyhemoglobin. Carboxyhemoglobin is a bright red compound that colors the victim’s skin, blood, muscles and orgain a cherry-red color. While this coloration is a sign of CO inhalation, the blood and tissue tests reveal more accurate results.

So, if you have nightmares about dying in a fire, just know that – in most cases – the smoke and CO will kill you before the fire ever reaches you. In the case of The Station fire, reports that “black smoke” had covered the remaining club goers before the fire ever reached them were evident. While individual case reports may reveal the exact cause of death, little is indicated in the Wikipedia story that shows how the club goers died. However, after reading the report, you may realize that it took very little time for the smoke and CO poisoning to reach the party-goers. That toxic combination reached them well before the fire.

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