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J Forensic Sci. 2003 Jan;48(1):161-3.

The happy land homicides: 87 deaths due to smoke inhalation.

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New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner and Department of Forensic Medicine, New York University School of Medicine, New York, NY 10016, USA.


We reviewed all 87 deaths from the Happy Land Social Club fire. All deaths were due to smoke inhalation. The carboxyhemoglobin (COHb) concentrations ranged from 37 to 93% with a mean of 76.5%. The vast majority (97%) of the decedents had a COHb concentration over 50%. Cyanide blood concentrations ranged from 0 to 5.5 mg/L with a mean of 2.2 mg/L. Nine decedents had no cyanide detected, and seven had cyanide concentrations of less than 1 mg/L. Fewer than one third of the decedents had thermal injuries, and most were partial thickness burns involving less than 20% body surface area. Ethanol was detected in 72% of decedents with a range of 0.01 to 0.29 g% and a mean blood concentration of 0.11 g%. Cocaine or cannabinoid use was identified in 9% of the decedents. All decedents were visually identified, and all had soot in the airway extending to the major bronchi. Carboxyhemoglobin concentrations corresponded well with deaths from smoke inhalation. Cyanide concentrations did not correspond with the extent of smoke inhalation, and the role of cyanide in contributing to these deaths is doubtful. Hydrogen chloride inhalation, as evidenced by comparison of the pH of tracheal mucosa to controls, was not a factor.

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