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Collaborating on Human Rights Investigations: Fire Research and Forensic Science

At the spring 2017 meeting of the Committee on Human Rights, Professor José Torero—the John L. Bryan Chair in Fire Protection Engineering and Director of the Center for Disaster Resilience at the University of Maryland—spoke to members about his efforts to help protect human rights through the investigation of several high-profile fires.   

One notable example is his investigation of a 2010 fire in Chile’s San Miguel prison that led to the death of dozens of inmates. During a fight between rival gangs in the prison, a mattress was intentionally set ablaze by inmates. In the three hours that it took for local fire fighters to bring the fire under control, 81 inmates trapped behind closed gates were killed. The incident prompted the public defender’s office to request an investigation to help determine whether the prison guards, who had failed to open the padlocks of the burning cells, were liable for their deaths. Dr. Torero was called to simulate the conditions of the fire, in order to understand its behavior, and to create an estimation of the time-line of events. His team concluded that the intense blaze grew quickly out of control, and that the guards could not have intervened in time to save those who perished. Dr. Torero’s findings shifted blame away from the prison guards and toward the need for improvement in prison conditions, as overcrowding within the prison led to the high number of causalities. Consequently, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera called for an end to overcrowding in the prison system and for much needed reforms. 

Dr. Torero also shared his experience investigating a massive fire set at an alleged crime scene in Guerrero State, Mexico. At the invitation of an expert group convened by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), he conducted experiments that challenged the government's narrative surrounding the fate of 43 students from a rural teachers’ college who, after being fired upon by local police, were taken into custody and later went missing.  Dr. Torero’s findings brought greater public attention to the forensic science of fire investigation. [For more information about Dr. Torero’s efforts in this case, read the related articles in Science Magazine, "Were the bodies of 43 missing students burned at a dumpsite?" and "'Burning bodies' experiment casts doubt on fate of missing Mexican students".  Dr. Torero emphasized the need for human rights organizations and institutions to better understand the science behind human rights investigations and the added value scientists can provide through their technical analyses.