A man is in the slammer for the arson murders of his wife and son, and contacts the CSI's top forensic investigator, Grissom, to help him. The man was known to have purchased gasoline the week before the fire, and he was observed fleeing the scene. While these two facts alone seemed to be flimsy evidence for a conviction, there he was in jail.
Amazingly enough though, with each passing commercial the guy looked more guilty. A half dozen 'arson investigators' had already turned the accused down for help (maybe for good reason?). Grissom, by the way, was not a fire investigator, so it's unclear why CSI would even be involved in an origin and cause investigation in the first place.
The man explains to Grissom that the fire began late at night in the couple's bedroom closet in his nice large suburban house. He at first claims that he came home from buying ice cream to find smoke billowing out the back of the house. He explains that a 'flashover' had occurred in the bedroom (he's a volunteer firefighter, you see, and he knows these things).
Although he tried to hide it from Grissom, the man had burned his hand horribly ('third degree burns' we learn - hey, that's charred skin!) on the door knob and was blown back by a fireball as he opened the bedroom door from the hallway. The 'flashover' prevented him from entering and saving his wife and young son. He even knew the temperature of the fire - 932 degrees Fahrenheit, because that's the temperature, we're told, that flashover occurs!
Flashover, in real life, is a transitional phase in fire development and does not occur at such a specific temperature, though research has shown that flashover typically occurs when temperatures in a room reach or exceed approximately 1100 degrees Fahrenheit. Generally speaking, flashover is defined as the stage of the fire when every exposed combustible material in a room has caught on fire.
Investigators found remains of a flammable liquid in the closet. With a good analysis a chemist will be able to tell specifically what was used (whether it be gasoline, kerosene, diesel, methanol, acetone, etc.). The script itself mentioned gasoline, but on the show as broadcast the more generic term 'hydrocarbons' was used so that viewers would be kept in the dark about what the fuel really was.
Enter our forensic heroes, the CSI team, to the rescue. They discover a mysteriously charred board at the top of the bedroom door frame, and a burned 'industrial grade high voltage' electric space heater discarded and thrown into the living room during overhaul by the fire department. Displaying his amazing skill in logical deduction, Grissom reasons that the heater had to have been plugged in to the closet outlet in the couple's bedroom because "that's the one closest to her bed".
Yes, that's what he said.
Why he assumed that the heater had to be plugged in at all, anywhere, we're not told. And Grissom never questioned why, if it was so cold that using a heater was necessary, the accused would be out buying ice cream at midnight.
Grissom and his crack team observe melted glass fragments on the closet floor. They also notice that the bedroom wiring's circuit breaker had tripped in the electrical panel - conclusive evidence to them that the circuit had 'overloaded'. In real life, finding tripped breakers is not unusual, and doesn't necessarily indicate that an electrical fire has even occurred - because this can also happen when electrical components are merely exposed to a fire.
What could possibly explain these new clues, which had conveniently been previously overlooked by the arson investigator originally assigned to the case? BTW, the first investigator determined that the husband was indeed the culprit, so the scriptwriters disingenuously presented this co-worker of Grissom as a major jerk to confuse viewers.
In a startling admission from the accused (with a flashback), Grissom discovers that, on the night of the fire, the man had argued with his wife in their bedroom over a new woman in his life. The son was nowhere to be seen in this scene, but for plot convenience he reportedly hadn't been able to sleep and was supposedly in the couple's bed trying to get some shuteye during their shouting bout!
In her anger, his wife began flinging handy and available projectiles at her philandering hubby. One of the objects thrown was a hefty glass kerosene lamp which missed him but shattered against a closet wall and spilled its flammable contents. This is also an important detail the accused has neglected to tell Grissom about until late in the episode. And it also explains why we're told initially only that the lab found 'hydrocarbons' - though both are hydrocarbon fuels, gasoline is readily distinguishable from kerosene lamp oil.
The accused says he left home and drove off after the argument, but after mulling it over it a bit he decided to turn around and attempt to salvage his 10 year marriage. He returned less than 20 minutes later to find the house on fire. A lot happened in those 20 minutes - according to Grissom's unique perspective. Immediately after the man left the house the heater had coincidentally overloaded the circuit, sparked out the outlet in the closet where it was plugged in, and ignited the kerosene fumes in the closet.
For some inexplicable reason the wife and son had done nothing to clean up the spilled kerosene before the fire; they made no attempt to escape the bedroom once the fire began and they presumably died of poisoning by carbon monoxide (a fire byproduct), which takes time to accumulate. What were they doing while the fire was building in their room? Were they asleep? If so, how did they fall asleep so quickly? (remember that the 8 year old was in their room originally because he couldn't sleep!) Were they conscious through all this? (pssst, Grissom.... these are clues!)
So what else was wrong with this sad plot? Actually, very little was right, but there's simply not enough time to cover it all. Nearly every fire-related comment in this show was inaccurate in one way or another.
Although 'flashover' is mentioned several times (it's clear that the scriptwriter had confused a 'flashover' with a 'backdraft' - another fire event entirely), various shadowy views of the bedroom showed that a flashover did not occur. A 'V' shaped pattern against a wall and a breach through the ceiling is the only burn damage shown other than the heater and the mysteriously charred upper doorframe. No other walls are scorched, and the bed mattress has a few burn marks which show up in one scene but not in another.
As mentioned previously, every exposed combustible item in a room is burning during a flashover. How difficult could it have been to actually burn a mattress and a few other props before placing them on the set?
And why did this couple have a large but portable electric space heater running in the bedroom when the upscale suburban house they lived in undoubtedly had a heating unit built in? And not to be nitpicking (too late!), but closets typically don't include wall outlets. Not only that - if the heater really was 'high-voltage' it would have had a differently shaped cord plug (like what you'd find on a clothes dryer cord) which wouldn't have even fit into the bogus closet outlet that shouldn't have been there.
The insulation on the wires Grissom carefully examined in an on-camera close-up was burned away only in one small localized area, which is not unusual, and was pretty conclusive evidence that the wires hadn't been 'overloaded' with excessive current. At least one of the wires should have been bared of insulation its entire length, since the insulation would have melted off of any conductors overheated by a fire-causing 'overload'.
So, let's grant them the 'creative' license of allowing the outlet in the closet. What happened then, electrically, appeared to be a fault (but with electrical arcing - not an 'overload') in the duplex wall outlet (which, by the way, occurred in the lower socket, and NOT the upper one where the heater was shown to be plugged in during a camera flashback!). An electrical fault could have been caused by the kerosene-fueled fire, another crucial point overlooked by Grissom.
At the end the man goes free (and his girlfriend and Grissom are there when he's released), and the episode ends with these lines:
suspect: It's funny. When I got out, I thought I'd feel ... (sighs) ...free.
GRISSOM: And ... ?
suspect: I feel ...
GRISSOM: ... responsible?
Ironically, Grissom helped free a man who very well may have committed the murders of his wife and son. But he looked so cool doing it.
Fire & Accident Causation Technical Services (FACTS).
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