The explosive world of the national ATF lab

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LAUREL, Maryland -- Chicago had two enormous fires within two months: The Flea Market and Room Place warehouse.  And it took a phenomenal effort by local fire fighters to put it out and suffer no loss of life when both blazes happened in daylight with people inside.

But afterwards, a group of investigators descended from all over the U.S. to help solve the mysteries of how the fires started.
They all work for one operation.

WGN Investigates got a first-hand look at the one-of-a-kind lab run by Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives better known as the ATF.

The ATF team offered their services after a thousand degrees Fahrenheit blaze melted everything in the Flea Market fire in Chicago last March. It was so hot, it crumpled the roof, swallowed cars and consumed the two block long flea market below the parking structure.

It was 9:30 in the morning with a handful of people inside. Didn’t anyone see the fire? How could it get so big and so fast that more than 180 firefighters are needed to put it out?

Dr. David Sheppard quickly found out through a combination of gumshoe investigating and forensic science.

Back at the Maryland ATF Research Fire Lab, he points to a 3D computer layout of the flea market that he developed based on what ATF and Chicago fire investigators brought to him.

The senior advisor of the lab, Sheppard says people in the flea market didn’t notice the fire because it started at one end with smoke drifting outside an opening in the building. Within a few short days, Dr. Sheppard figured out it started as a small electrical fire in one booth.

The ATF fire lab that he heads up is one of a kind, funded by taxpayers to assist firefighters across the U.S. and the world.

What is so striking about this place in Laurel, Maryland, is its sheer size. They can build and burn a 3-story townhouse inside the lab if necessary.

It wasn’t but a few weeks later, after Chicago’s flea market fire, the national ATF response team was again called to Chicago. This time for the massive Room Place furniture warehouse fire.

Part of the team is Chicago -based Zelda and her handler Jeff Marshall. Zelda's job is to sniff out gasoline or accelerants. None was found at the warehouse.

WGN Investigates went along with Zelda for her first flight where at the Maryland lab, she was put to the test sniffing out accelerants.

Zelda, a 5 month old Black Lab, is certified in six classifications of petroleum products. Her handler, Marshall, says if you think of all the items that are made from petroleum products, she’s capable of finding just about everything

Zelda trains 365 days a year with Marshall. She’s just one tool in the ATF arsenal, pointing out potential spots for the lab to check and confirm.

And after working for 8-9 years, Zelda will retire to a life of luxury at Marshall’s home. As part of her training, she becomes the family pet. She lives with Marshall 24/7.

The rest of the national response team is human. One phone call and anyone of the 123 team members is dispatched in 24-hours.

John Golder, a national response team supervisor recently returned from the West Texas fertilizer explosion which just last week ATF declared an arson.

He calls the lab a game changer in fire investigations. A decade or two ago, fire investigating was more of trade passed down through the years. Now, science is changing that here at ATF.

The ATF special agent in charge Jeffrey Magee in Chicago made the call to bring in the Maryland team for both Chicago fires.

The flea market fire was determined to be an accident. The Room Place fire was ruled arson. A suspect was quickly identified and is now awaiting trial.

Magee lauds the team for finding two different results, very speedy and very quick.

Back in Maryland, theories are tested, mimicking the same conditions at a fire to come up with their conclusions.

ATF agents and local firefighters train and learn here. And of course, they do demonstrations too.

While WGN Investigates was there, we watched as firefighters start a fire in a mock living room with a single flame in some newspapers.

Dr. Sheppard says they’ll look at the different patterns of the burn and smoke to make determinations.

Within a minute and then two minutes, the living room space is engulfed  Even little stuffed animals serve a purpose.  Away from the flames – measuring heat which sets them on fire.

After the smoke is cleared, it’s a search for clues among the ashes.

The lessons learned here are put in to practice come the day they’re sent back to Chicago to solve the next big one.

Here’s a final point about the ATF investigations. In arson cases, the lab’s evidence has not only helped convict some, it has also set the innocent free through the science.