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In Michael Clayton, George Clooney narrowly escapes immolation when a car bomb takes out his Mercedes on a deserted country road. Clooney portrays an attorney marked for death by an agricultural conglomerate after a colleague uncovers documents that tie the company to a carcinogenic weed killer.
Journalist Michael Hastings’ death early Tuesday morning, June 18, in Los Angeles after the Mercedes C250 coupe he was driving slammed into a palm tree at high speed has sparked conspiracy theories that Hastings, like Clooney’s Clayton, was targeted for his investigative reporting. The crash was so intense that the car’s engine and transmission were found 100 feet from the main wreckage.
Video of the spectacular fire consuming the car has fueled speculation that sabotage, perhaps an incendiary device, was the cause of the crash and subsequent fire.
As The Truth About Cars website noted, at least half seriously: “I’ve seen dozens of cars hit walls and stuff at high speeds and the number of them that I have observed to eject their power trains and immediately catch massive fire is, um, ah, zero. Modern cars are very good at not catching fire in accidents.”
“As a Mercedes owner, these are the safest cars in the world,” a commenter posted on Reddit. “Explosion … fireball, engine [flies] down the block. Not your typical crash.”
But post-crash fires are, in fact, depressingly typical, especially in high-speed scenarios, says Philadelphia attorney Max Kennerly, whose firm represents plaintiffs in car fires.
“If someone is driving at high speed and hits a very solid object, yeah, you’ll get a fire out of that,” Kennerly says. “It wouldn’t be an underestimation to say that every day, a lawsuit is filed over a car fire right after an accident. There are every year 300,000 vehicle fires and a couple hundred deaths and a couple thousand injuries.”
Frank Markus, technical director of Motor Trend, points out that “any impact at speeds high enough to rip the drive train out of a car is highly likely to force some object to rupture the fuel tank. There is a lot of potential chemical energy in a gas tank that’s even a quarter full. Getting up to such speeds — providing he didn’t start a cold engine and floor the car into that tree — results in a lot of red hot parts, particularly the catalytic converter and other exhaust system parts.”
A car’s interior, Kennerly says, is particularly flammable.
“Your car is filled with fabric, foam and plastic, but the only federal standards relate to dropping a cigarette on it,” Kennerly says. “What happens in these higher-speed accidents is that hot parts leave the engine compartment and start coming into contact with plastic and other chemicals. The last time NTSB did testing on this, those fires spread in one to three minutes. That nice interior with shiny leather and chemicals that make it look and smell nice, all of it will catch fire. Once something like foam or plastic reaches the temperature of burning, it burns immediately. It looks like a bomb — it looks like an incendiary was planted on [Hastings’ car] because many times it produces the same types of chemicals as it degrades.”
So while the casual evidence might suggest otherwise, the prosaic reality is that cars involved in high-speed crashes often go up in flames. “Because of Hastings’ brave reporting on the powerful some may try to see something nefarious in it,” says Matt Hardigree, editor in chief of Jalopnik. “But this isn’t entirely unlike accidents we’ve seen in the past.”