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Monday, July 23, 2012

Drowning Forensics

Anatomy of a Drowning

For those who think that drowning is a pleasant way to go, think again. Drowning is a violent assault on the body during which the frightened victim fiercely, albeit briefly, battles to survive. Death follows exhaustion within only two or three minutes.

Technically, it is true that a person can drown in as little as a cup of water. A cup, a puddle, a ditch, a bathtub—anytime liquid enters the air passages and lungs, even if someone doesn’t die immediately, it can still turn fatal because there are a host of medical complications which arise that are always life-threatening, such as pneumonia and renal failure. These type of delayed fatalities are known as “secondary drownings” and, although their symptoms may develop over the course of several days, or even longer for some patients, they’re usually triggered within only a few hours of the initial incident.

But most victims drown fully submerged in water when the nose and mouth inadvertently become covered. Sometimes, when there is an instantaneous glottal spasm blocking off oxygen, or a preexisting medical condition, death can be automatic without any signs of a struggle. In the majority of drownings, however, this is not the case. Struggling is one of the key stages leading to unconsciousness and death. In fact, so intense can this final fight for life be that, in more than ten percent of drowning fatalities, an autopsy will actually reveal bruised and ruptured muscles, particularly in the shoulders, chest and neck. Evidence of injuries of this nature suggest to a medical examiner the strong likelihood that a victim was alive in the water at the time of their demise and not placed there already dead.

The stages of a full-immersion drowning event are fairly quick and, because the victim’s airways are being blocked, either by water and/or the epiglottis, it’s often completely soundless. There will be panicked thrashing as the victim desperately attempts to get air and to grab onto nearby objects for security, and then, when they can no longer hold their breath, they’ll begin to inhale water in large quantities, gulping it into their stomach as well. This action also rapidly circulates water throughout their other systems and bloodstream with differing biochemical reactions depending on whether they’re in saltwater or in fresh. This last stage of drowning ends with coughing, vomiting, convulsions, loss of consciousness, death, and rigormortis.

Very shortly after the victim dies their body will start to sink. If retrieved soon thereafter, their arms and hands may display cadaveric spasm, a posture in death borne out of extreme mental anguish and which reveals the person’s final thoughts and movements as they frantically fought to stay alive.

If a victim is not promptly retrieved at death, then, without exception and no matter how deep or how swift the water may be, their corpse will continue to drift downward until it reaches the bottom. This is where it will remain in a somewhat fetal position until gases from putrefaction cause it to rise to the surface once more.

A semi-fetal posture is the norm for all drown victims, so if divers do locate such a body before it ascends, but it isn’t in this pose and/or the head is seen to be tilted to one side, they must include these observations in their police recovery report, as it reveals the victim died on land and was put in the water post-rigormortis.

Typically, once the body does emerge on its own, it will surface in the general vicinity of where the victim originally went under. From this location the water may then carry the corpse along for quite a distance, depending on the strength of the currents or if it becomes ensnared and is thereby prevented.
Refloat largely varies on the water’s depth and temperature, taking only a matter of hours to occur if extremely warm and up to two weeks or longer if at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or less. The timetable, therefore, is not fixed but is loosely as follows: at 40 degrees Fahrenheit it takes approximately fourteen to twenty days for a drown victim’s corpse to resurface; at 50 degrees ten to fourteen days; at 60 degrees seven to...read the rest for FREE here 

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