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September 12, 2010

Car fire mystery

Investigators speculate on what caused man to become trapped in burning vehicle.

LOGANSPORT — The car fire that nearly killed an 81-year-old Logansport man has been ruled accidental, but exactly how the victim became trapped inside remains a mystery.

Logansport fire investigator Ted Franklin said he and state fire marshal Fred Sumpter scoured Robert Hunt’s 1992 Mercury Sable Sunday morning looking for clues as to what caused the fire. Franklin reported that they pinpointed the fire’s origin.

“That fire started right there in the front driver’s door,” he said.

Evidence on the door in the interior of Hunt’s car shows that intense heat burned away all material except metal near the electrical component that controls the power windows and locks. Blistered paint on the exterior also indicates the fire started there, Franklin said.

Just before noon on Saturday Dave Jump of Cass County EMS called 9-1-1 to report that a car traveling south on Michigan Avenue had smoking coming from its interior. Jump, who had been departing from Logansport Memorial Hospital on an emergency call, noticed the driver’s side door open then close before the car came to rest at the entrance to Four County Counseling Center, Franklin said.

Medics broke the driver’s side window out but Hunt reportedly could not been seen through the smoke. The responders then smashed the window on the passenger side, where they located the unresponsive driver and pulled him from the car that continued to burn.

According to a police report, the medics had to break the windows because the doors were locked.

Hunt suffered second and third degree burns on his chest, back and head. He was airlifted to St. Joseph Burn Center in Fort Wayne, where as of Sunday evening he was listed in critical condition.

Franklin and Sumpter believe that either the fire may have shorted out the power locks or Hunt could not get to the lock on the passenger side in time due to heat and smoke.

“We speculate that he tried to open the door to exit the vehicle while it was moving and because of the amount of heat that was right there he wasn’t able to do that,” Franklin said.

Once Hunt stopped the vehicle, which he reportedly placed in park, Franklin said he tried to exit on the passenger side.

“We theorize that the door was on fire, he tried to exit out of the passenger side, but that door was also locked,” Franklin said. “For whatever reason, he was unable to get the passenger’s front door unlocked.”

The investigators do not know how long Hunt’s vehicle was burning before it came to rest at the hospital. Hunt cannot be interviewed because he is sedated, Franklin said.

The victim reportedly lives less than five minutes from the hospital, but investigators do not know if Hunt had just left home or had been driving from somewhere else. To determine a timeline, authorities would need an eye witness account.

“Anybody who has information about this we would love to interview them,” Franklin said.

Franklin reported that Hunt did not smoke so they eliminated that as a possible cause. The car’s interior had extensive damage, but the engine compartment, which housed the undamaged fuse box, did not suffer damage from the fire, he said.

Neither Franklin nor Sumpter, who was called in to assist due to the unusual nature of the fire, had encountered a car fire that injured a person so badly that did not involve a crash.

“In my 21 years, I cannot recall anything like it,” Franklin said.

Hunt’s car has been secured in an indoor facility until his insurance company investigates the fire further.

Hunt’s family could not be reached for comment.

Can you help?

• Fire investigator Ted Franklin is seeking additional information regarding Saturday’s car fire. Anyone who may have seen Robert Hunt leaving his residence or knew of any recent car troubles is encouraged to Logansport’s central fire station at 574-753-3102.

• Kevin Lilly is news editor of the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at 574-732-5117 or kevin.lilly@pharostribune.com.

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