BELTSVILLE (WJZ) — A major blaze leads to microscopic detective work. It was in the lab that the cause of a five-alarm fire on “the Block” was found to be the result of human action. This means something that could burn was set on fire by a person.

Alex DeMetrick has a look at the lab that cracked the cause.

Last week’s five-alarm fire in the city’s red light district on Baltimore Street, an area known to many as “the Block,” eventually found its way down a long hallway in Beltsville—home to the ATF’s forensic science lab.

“The chances of finding something in terms of an ignitable liquid is relatively slim just due to the burning process,” said Roy Kuk, ATF section chief.

That’s why ATF’s fire investigators came to Baltimore with chemists. Tracing the fire to a peep-show booth in the Gayety Show World bookstore, evidence was sealed into cans designed to keep vapors trapped.

“Essentially, we live in a petroleum-based society,” Kuk said. “Most of the things we have give off petroleum vapors, and that’s what you’re looking for when you’re looking for an ignitable liquid, something like gasoline.”

And this is what it takes to do the looking:

“You absolutely need a gas chromatograph to do the analysis,” Kuk said.

What it does is separate all the vapors into its various components. A spectrometer then tells chemists which of those components come from an ignitable liquid.

But time, as well as fire and water, is a challenge. That’s because volatile fuel and its fumes evaporate.

Finding a tell-tale trace of volatile liquid comes down to the weather.

“It’s been relatively cold during the scene processing,” Kuk said, “So, we weren’t losing things as rapidly as we would, say, in the middle of July.”

The ATF lab in Beltsville is one of only three in the nation that does intense fire forensics.


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