VIDEO: Fiery forensics


Daniel K. Rutherford has spent 30 years as a certified marine investigator, looking into fires, explosions, sinkings, boat disappearances. His job is to determine the cause of boat casualties and he investigates about 150 claims a year.

“Most are accidental, many from electrical causes,” says Rutherford, president of Ocean Marine Specialties in West Cape May, N.J. “But with this economy there has been an uptick in suspicious fires.”

Click play for video of a staged propane explosion aboard a Dufour 27.

Rutherford is a founding member of the International Association of Marine Investigators, which has around 1,200 members worldwide.

The association membership is varied — law enforcement, private and public fire investigators, surveyors, insurance investigators — so one of the group’s goals is to create a uniform method for examining cases. On April 19-20, Rutherford and a team of association members organized a marine fire investigation course in Sayreville, N.J.

Organizers burned 10 donated boats — some damaged (many by Hurricane Irene), others derelicts — under various scenarios, including a propane explosion. Each was recorded on infrared and HD video. About 80 association members then attended the course to investigate the staged fires.

“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.”

Click play for a slideshow detailing more forensics work.

The lessons were designed to allow investigators to collaborate and share their experience and knowledge, Rutherford says, but the safety implications of the exercise should not be lost on boat owners.

“In your home or in a public place there’s a good chance you can exit the building and be safe,” Rutherford says. “On a boat it’s either fight the fire successfully or jump overboard. There’s not a lot of in-between.”

Look for an in-depth report on the exercise in an upcoming issue of Soundings.