Playing with Fire

Inside the ATF’s fire science laboratory, researchers recreate infernos to find clues hidden in the ashes that can bring the guilty to justice and set the innocent free.
  1. Late at night on February 14, 2012—Valentine’s Day—a fire broke out at the Comayagua Farm Prison in central Honduras. For 40 minutes, the flames consumed ten barracks designed to house about 50 inmates each. On the night of the fire, close to twice that many prisoners were locked in the cells. By morning, 361 were dead.

    The next day, a Honduran newspaper reported that an inmate had called the Comayaguan governor that night, threatening to burn the place down. Others accused prison guards of starting the fire. In a dilapidated and overcrowded prison, in the country with the world’s highest murder rate, neither scenario seemed far-fetched.

    The Honduran government asked the United States for help with the investigation, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives—known as ATF—assigned its International Response Team to the scene.

    When John Allen, a member of that team, arrived at the prison, he saw hundreds of people standing outside the gates. They were family me...

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