BELTSVILLE, Md. (CBS) — Solving crimes by recreating them. At a federal laboratory in Maryland, setting things on fire is all part of the job.
Deadly explosions, mysterious bombings and fatal fires — all cases we’ve seen in our region over the past three years. And when the investigation is too large, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives steps in.
The scene is processed and the investigation goes into overdrive, all inside a nondescript, highly-secure building tucked within what appears to be a featureless industrial park.
It’s the ATF’s Fire Research Lab in Beltsville, Maryland, about two hours from the City of Brotherly Love.
Brian Scott Grove is a fire engineer at the facility.
“In this space, we’re burning large structures, large items. We’ve done multi-story compartments, different commercial structures — a lot of structures that involve fatalities — rack storage and warehouses, large vehicles,” Grove said.
Evidence from at least six different cases in our area have been sent to this lab, including the still unsolved 2016 Center City mail bomb case, 2018’s Old City four-alarm fire — which was recently deemed arson — the fatal West Chester retirement home blaze and the deadly car explosion case in Allentown from the same year.
Electrical engineer Michael Abraham was one of the first members of the NRT on that scene.
“For the Allentown investigation, I was utilized for my expertise in components identification,” Abraham said. “We reconstructed the vehicle in an airplane hangar, so we could see how it looked after the blast to be able to identify the seat and assist with the investigation.”
The facility has multiple secure labs, where evidence, often fragments from explosions and fire cases, from across the country are shipped in metal cans and examined.
“We have forensic chemistry labs, forensic DNA labs,” one worker said. “On our side, we have a small scale pyrometrics laboratory.”
But what makes this facility so unique is the ability to recreate crime scenes and perform real-life tests.
Such as this one, which shows how fire travels, depending on the materials in the room and what doors and windows are open. It’s done in a space large enough to build three-story structures — one of only a few such facility in the entire world.
“This room is huge. It’s able to take in and absorb a lot of energy,” Grove said.
It has hoods and exhaust systems able to divert smoke from the area, and a central command center used to monitor every aspect of a fire. Interior cameras capture each moment, until they succumb to the flames.
“We test and retest our theories until we’re confident in the outcome,” one worker said.
Those outcomes can help answer the how of a fire or the person responsible — or exonerate the innocent.
“That’s what drives us every day, is that we help to keep the community safer, and we help to answer questions and give closure to families as best we can,” one worker said.