By Nick Markowitz Jr.
I ran into an unusual situation the other day where a fire could have started but where investigators might easily miss the actual cause of the fire.
One of the services I provide to my alarm customers is keeping an eye on there properties during the winter when there closed. Several of my customers are in summer time business and or also are what we call Snow Birds up here where they like to take off for warmer climate areas during the winter.
Well one of these stores fronts I watch in the New Castle Pa. area sells swimming pools and the store is vacant all winter and heat is turned off and store winterized including putting a 120 vac electric heat tape around the water meter piping.
The owner calls me and asks me to check the store the other day because a contractor has some work to do in there as there getting ready for some remodeling and the heat did not come on correctly. No problem the next morning I head up there and when I walk into the store to shut off the burglar alarm I hear a loud hissing noise from the back. Yea I got a broken water pipe no doubt about it. Just what kind of mess was I going to find and do I have to cut power was my worry.
I look in the back storage room where I hear the leak and find that water is spraying a fine mist out just thru the main shut off valve onto both walls. One stroke of luck though is there is a floor drain catching most of it. The one bad thing is it is spraying directly on an electrical outlet where the heat tape is plugged in and I can smell something burning.
I quickly shut off power call 911 as I do not know who the water supplier for the store is but I will need them to shut it off at the street box. They notify Water Company for me and firefighters came to the store non emergency response and they helped me get the water under control till Water Company arrives.
We set up some dikes and eliminated the water spray on the walls.
The water Company arrives and luckily even with the snow on the ground they know where to look and quickly turn off the water.
Tragedy averted and only one room to clean up.
But what if I had not gotten there in time what if the water caused the outlet to catch fire
The walls where covered with dark paneling and there was a 7 foot ceiling Flexible Fiberglas drop in panels and a wooden deck above it used for storage the room measured aprox 8x8 feet .
If the outlet would have ignited the wall chances are the entire wall would burn down to the studs and just burnt copper wire and a box would be hanging with the extension cord plugged in.
So you arrive on scene and start the investigation it would look pretty conclusive the fire started at the outlet do to a malfunction the water running could be explained away by either the room getting hot enough to loosen solder on pipes and cause the leak or that a firefighter inadvertently damaged during attempts to put it out .
A forensic investigation of the valve might prove it was the culprit if it could be determined the damage was pre not post fire but only if you would run the scenario the piping was even involved because this is one of those fires where it would be very easy due to all the electrical activity at the outlet to say that’s where it started. Plus if the fire was basically kept to just that area how hard would it even be looked at when it appears obvious what happened.
This once again proves out that Fire Science and Investigation is not 100% perfect. And why as an investigator you must weigh all options. Or as in this case could happen the wrong party could be held liable.