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Woman's remains consumed in Penticton fire is unprecedented mystery for first responders

The remains of Mary Esta's house prior to emergency crews sifting through the wreckage in a search for her remains, which have not been found. Esta has been declared a missing person by police.
October 19, 2017 - 8:00 PM

PENTICTON - It's difficult to talk about, write about and, probably to read about it, but the complete loss of human remains in a fatal fire in Penticton last week remains a mystery to everyone involved.

If the remains of the 92-year-old woman believed to be in the home when it burned, were essentially cremated in the fire, it would been a rare event, unheard of among many active firefighters and first responders.

Mary Ruth Esta has not been seen since a fire last Wednesday evening, Oct.11, destroyed her home and an adjacent residence next door.

But numerous thorough searches of the wreckage have failed to turn up any human remains, and Penticton RCMP recently declared her a missing person. It leaves firefighters and police in an awkward situation. 

“I’ve seen fires similar to this, (but) from my experience, I’ve never had human remains completely disposed of in a fire,” says Penticton Fire Chief Larry Watkinson. “It doesn’t happen. The way that building burned, the second floor fell down on top of the first, and covered up a lot of stuff - pillows, blankets, mattresses, books - things that would normally burn in an open environment, but were covered.”

"Our opinion is she would have been covered by some debris that fell down, which would have left remains. We found nothing, no large bones, femurs, or skull. The fire was dramatic, it was big, there was a lot of fuel. Maybe there is a potential she was completely consumed, but even in a crematorium, where they burn for two hours at 1,600 F, there are still pieces of bone left.... I just don’t see that fire getting to that temperature for that duration, I’ve called my colleagues on this, and they’ve never heard of anything like it. It’s truly bizarre.”

The fire department combed through the wreckage in great detail several times in the days following the fire, Watkinson says, and believes it’s not likely the remains were somehow missed.

“I don’t have the answers as to what happened to her. In my opinion, she was just not there. And it’s sad to say that. Maybe she was fully consumed by fire, I just don’t have the answers to that. It’s a complete mystery to me,” Watkinson says. “In my experience, we’ve always been able to come up with bodies. They just don’t disintegrate in a fire.”

Strategic Communications Officer for the B.C. Coroners Office Andy Watson says according to the B.C. Fire Commissioner's Office: "no structure fire can burn hot enough to completely consume human remains."

There appears to be limited research on the subject, but in certain instances, human remains can theoretically all but disappear in an intense fire if conditions are right.

The website Straight Dope attempted to answer this question investigating the case of the missing Sodder children following a fire in Fayetteville, West Virginia in 1945 where five children were trapped in a fire, but no bodies were ever found.

In that case, the fire is described as burning for 45 minutes to an hour before the roof collapsed.

The parents refused to believe the children had burned in the fire after speaking to forensic experts of the day who told them a 45-minute house fire would not be of sufficient duration to completely destroy the bodies.

One theory has it the bodies were burned to the point only broken pieces of bone remained, which were subsequently missed in a search by the fire department.

A New Scientist article dated May 24, 2009 discussed the forensics of fire on a human body. Author Linda Geddes reported research performed by Fire-Ex Forensics fire investigator John DeHaan, who discovered under the proper conditions, a human body can sustain its own fire for up to seven hours. He noted bones become brittle with heat and can be broken up but even so, he says, “in most cases, something survives.”

Forensic scientist at University of West Florida’s Elayne Pope found, however, a human body can be completely destroyed in the trunk of a car under the right conditions, describing it as a “mini crematorium.”

It's a macabre subject and not one any family wanted to have, but this case will continue to perplex observers for some time. 


To contact a reporter for this story, email Steve Arstad or call 250-488-3065 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2017
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