"Blaze: The Forensics of Fire" by Nicholas Faith

How investigators figure out the cause of a deadly blaze, and how people's behavior during a fire determines their fate.

By John Freeman
Published August 3, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Blaze: The Forensics of Fire
By Nicholas Faith
St. Martin's Press, 208 pages

With his last three books, "Blackbox," "Mayday" and "Crash," British journalist Nicholas Faith tapped into the seemingly endless appetite for tales of disaster. In "Blaze," he continues in this macabre vein, this time delving into the forensics of fire, the process of investigating how a fire starts and grows. While he's no Jon Krakauer -- the book has no central narrative, no fleshed-out characters to follow -- Faith captures the often glossed-over details of the science of fighting fires.

Faith interviewed firefighters, investigators and survivors of some of the worst fires in recent memory, and "Blaze" splices together these personal accounts with anecdotes culled from the annals of fire history. The result is an engaging look at how investigators discover the cause of ignition, the movement of a fire and, most poignantly, the behavior of people in a fire's crucial moments.

One insight to emerge from "Blaze" is that deadly fires develop in seemingly innocuous situations. The blaze that destroyed a 38-story skyscraper in Philadelphia in 1991, for example, was traced to a pile of rags soaked in linseed oil. The rag pile created the precise conditions for the linseed oil to spontaneously combust. The resulting inferno caused several hundred million dollars' worth of damage and claimed the lives of three firefighters.

Other tragedies helped to develop our building codes. The famous 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan was an especially painful lesson. One hundred forty-six women were killed, in part because the building's exit doors were designed to open inward; the pressure of people trying to get out sealed them shut. Furthermore, many of the doors were locked from the outside to ensure that labor organizers could not infiltrate the factory. Another badly engineered egress -- in this case, revolving doors that could not handle heavy volume -- contributed to 492 deaths in a fire at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston in 1942. Building codes were revamped afterward.

The stories of these fires evoke images of crowds stampeding toward exits, but, as Faith argues, often people do not panic soon enough. In one fire, a school principal set off an alarm but then had to go around to classrooms evacuating pupils because none of them believed there really was a fire. In another incident, this one in a Woolworth's in London, many customers in the cafe refused to leave. One man was quoted as saying, "I've waited long enough for this meal, can I finish it?"

In the Woolworth's fire, smoke was the primary killer, since it knocked people out before they could reach an exit. This often happens in home fires, where nine out of 10 fire deaths occur. A fire investigator re-creates the experience of breathing in lethal fumes:

The first time you encounter the smoke ... you can't open your eyes because as soon as you do they water. You take another breath and the irritants hit the back of your throat. You retch and take a deep breath -- it's a natural involuntary reaction -- of these very toxic fumes. That disorients you, puts you down on the floor, and while you're incapacitated the toxicity takes over.

While investigations can determine what materials give off toxic fumes, they rarely shed light on effective ways to catch arsonists. Although the typical B-movie arsonist is out for revenge or profit, there are plenty of other motives, from sheer excitement to crime concealment, Faith shows. In one streak of suspicious blazes, a fire department officer was passed over for a promotion in favor of an older man. His son then set a series of fires, hoping to tire out the chosen man and force him into retirement. Age, however, didn't deter one septuagenarian from continuing his life of arson. By the time the Center for Arson Research finally tracked him down, he had ignited hundreds of fires as a means of coping with depression and anxiety.

As "Blaze" shows, the men and women who dedicate themselves to fighting and investigating fires have fascinating, heroic stories to tell. But rather than spinning his material into a narrative, as Stewart O'Nan does in his recent book "The Circus Fire," Faith is content to offer up an eclectic mix of stories and bits of information. It's more than enough to spark a reader's interest, but unlike O'Nan's harrowing yarn, "Blaze" never rises to the level of artifice.

John Freeman

John Freeman has written about books and culture for the Village Voice, Time Out New York and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He lives in New York.

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