Baltimore Police Ignore Likely Cause Of Porta Potty Fire Death

Baltimore Police Ignore Likely Cause of Porta Potty Fire Death; Man Suddenly Engulfed in Flames; Probably Will Be Ruled an “Accident” 

WASHINGTON, D.C.  (February 19, 2019) –  A man relieving himself in a portable toilet was suddenly so engulfed in flames that even those nearby could not save his life, yet the Baltimore police reportedly are not even treating it as a criminal investigation, and are likely to rule that it was a mere “accident.”

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But it's hard to see how a fire of such magnitude and intensity could possibly result from a mere accident, says public interest law professor John Banzhaf, whose background leads him to suspect a likely culprit.

Even someone who smokes in a porta potty - despite possibly getting a small amount of gasoline on his hands and/or clothing while filling up his car - would probably not trigger a blaze of such an intensity that the victim could not put out the fire by himself, or that his life could not be saved by those nearby who came to help, and also set no fewer than three different portable toilets on fire at once.

It's possible that the deceased ignited the blaze through his own accidental act, but only if he brought into the toilet with him something like a container of gasoline or some explosives, says Banzhaf.

In either case, having these dangerous items in his possession would create at least some suspicion of criminal activity.

In such a situation, a criminal investigation would certainly be warranted, and the event should not be ruled a mere "accident" such as those that typically result simply from careless smoking.

It appears highly unlikely that even a terrorist or mentally deranged person would bring that much inflammable and/or explosive material inside a small enclosed space at the risk of his own life and to whatever mischief he might have been planning to carry out, says Banzhaf.

Moreover, it is equally unlikely that someone bent on murdering the victim would chose as the best method to firebomb (e.g., with a Molotov cocktail) a portable toilet in mid afternoon with a security guard nearby, suggests Banzhaf.

It is far more likely, or at very least equally likely, that the death resulted from a well known and well publicized prank or practical joke gone horribly wrong.

There are many references on the Internet as to how one can prank someone else, especially a smoker, by dropping a small amount easily obtained calcium carbide into the toilet water.

That chemical, immediately upon exposure to water, generates acetylene, a highly explosive and flammable gas which was once widely used by miners as portable gas lamps ("carbide candles" or "smokers"), and is still used by cavers and in acetylene torches.

There are many references in books and on the Internet about dropping the chemical into the water in a toilet as part of a practical joke or prank which can be played on someone relieving themselves, especially if they are smokers.

For example, the Anarchist Cookbook suggests "put Calcium Carbine in a dissolving capsule and drop it in a toilet."

There are likewise numerous videos showing how to use calcium carbide to create the flammable gas acetylene, and then an explosion; instructions which often warn users to be very careful.

In almost all such practical joke or prank situations, most of the deadly gas quickly escapes from the well ventilated stall toilet into the surrounding air.

So the result is likely to be nothing more than a loud popping sound which may frighten the person sitting on the toilet, or at most a very brief fireball (like "lighting a f*rt") which might leave the victim slightly singed.  Most people would probably not view it as presenting a serious danger.

So, while there may be many possible explanations as to why a fire serious enough to kill a man could suddenly break out while he was using a portable toilet, one theory which should at least be considered is that someone had earlier dropped calcium carbide into the water-based liquid in the portable potty; possibly as joke or prank, says Banzhaf.

Nevertheless, if that act caused a death, it would constitute a homicide, and therefore should at the very least be investigated as a possible crime, not a mere accident, he suggests.

Banzhaf notes that if someone plays this "prank" in an ordinary public restroom, the toilet in the stall is adequately ventilated with openings on all sides, and there is no low ceiling since there's open space above the stall into which the acetylene can be vented and diluted.

However, if someone used calcium carbide to generate acetylene in a small enclosed portable toilet, the gas probably would not readily dissipate since the space is small and confined, with barriers on all sides, and even little space and no opening immediately above the user.

This, suggests Banzhaf, would likely create a more concentrated amount of flammable acetylene gas in the confined area inside the toilet, thereby greatly increasing the risk of fire and/or explosion.

Banzhaf says that when he was a student at MIT,  pranks [sometimes called "hacks"] involving explosives such as nitrogen triiodide, or dropping calcium carbide into a toilet, were frequently discussed, although the stories may have been exaggerated or even just invented.

Also, he recalls how the campus police at his own George Washington University were initially stumped when they responded to a situation in which a student inserting his key into the lock of his dorm room door triggered an explosion "of unknown cause."

Banzhaf enlightened them, explaining that many science and engineering students quickly learn how to manufacture nitrogen triiodide - an unstable chemical when dried, and one which then explodes on contact - and then use it to play pranks.

These pranks could include planting it in a door lock, on the bottom of bedroom slippers, or even spraying it onto the bed of an unsuspecting student planning to bring a hot date back to his room.

Young people, especially teens, may often not appreciate the danger of pranks, he suggests.


Professor of Public Interest Law

George Washington University Law School,

FAMRI Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor,

Fellow, World Technology Network,

Founder, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH),

2000 H Street, NW, Wash, DC 20052, USA

(202) 994-7229 // (703) 527-8418  @profbanzhaf