April 16, 2004

Of cigs and mattresses...

A guest post...

Here's what happened: Eight soldiers are detained in a cell for routine protocol infractions in Fuerte Mara, in Zulia State. A fire breaks out in the cell, causing third 3rd degree burns on at least 5 of the soldiers. One of them dies a week later, and medical reports showed he had burns on more than 80% of his body. The burns were apparently so severe that his liver and kidneys were damaged. One of the soldiers is still in a coma.

The official explanation?

One of the soldiers fell asleep smoking, and the cigarette lit his mattress on fire.

Ok, I admit I’m not a smoker. But for the life of me, I just can’t make this explanation add up no matter how many different ways I try it.

How long does it take for a mattress to catch on fire? How long from the time the cigarette catches lights mattress to the time the whole mattress is burning?

(Incidentally, the soldier accused of grabbing an illicit smoke happens to be Orlando Bustamante, the one who will have the most trouble giving a description of what actually happened -- because he’s dead.)

Now even if we can accept this rather implausible version, we would also have to believe that Bustamante did not wake up when the mattress caught on fire. In fact, if the cigarette/mattress story were true, it would mean that Bustamante sat on the flaming mattress long enough for it to burn nearly all of his body. If the cigarette were near his head - as it might well be given that people tend to smoke with their mouths - then the first thing that would have caught fire would have been his hair. Did Bustamente snooze through the sensation of his head going up in flames long enough for the fire to reach 80% of his body?

Is a mattress fire hot enough to cause 3 rd degree burns? I’ll admit not having consulted a burn expert on this one, but my first guess is no. But even if we can accept that poor smoking Bustamante’s nervous systems is too rickety to tell him that he is being singed – how did the other soldiers catch on fire? Were the mattresses of the eight soldiers all pushed into the same place?

If were are to believe General Silva’s explanation, it would mean that the remaining soldiers, like Angel Pedreañez, now in a coma as a result of 2 nd and 3 rd degree burns on more than half his body, slept through both Bustamante’s roasting as well as his own. Ditto for the others.

This would have taken at least a few minutes – so how long did it take the commanding officers to realize what was happening? If we follow out the story, the lieutenant or sergeant didn't have heard anything because the soldiers were restfully sleeping through a fire that was giving them 3rd degree burns.

This sure is confusing for a person who doesn’t smoke. I never realized - but must now surmise - that smokers around the world wake up all the time to find they’re missing an arm or have damaged internal organs because they feel asleep with a Marlboro in hand watching David Letterman.